As an author, inspiration can come from all things. It could be the line in a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation on the bus, a dream at night but one of the most important sources of inspiration are other authors.
Just like a budding sports star in the academy has that legend they look up to, I think it’s equally relevant to anyone who writes that they have heroes to look up to and learn from.
In this segment, I am going to interview fellow authors who have inspired me, those I have learned from and those who have helped me on my writing journey so far.
Today, I’m chatting to Debi Alper, who I met when she ran the Writers’ Workshop Online Self-Edit Course (along with Emma Darwin). Through the course and Debi’s wonderful editing, my writing went from being ideas in draft on paper to something that I could be proud to publish. Her series novels, Nirvana Bites & Trading Tatiana have just been re-released by Dzanc and are dark, contemporary thrillers with characters drawn from the urban sub-cultures of South London. Debi is also a freelance editor, mentor and creative writing tutor.
Okay, to start at the beginning. What made you join the East Dulwich Writer’s Group and what impact did it have on your writing? Do you think writer’s groups are worthwhile for a new writer to join?
I joined EDWG at an incredibly busy time in my life, when I had two tiny children and two very stressful jobs. Spending Saturday evening in the homes of local writers once a fortnight seemed like something I could fit in, and which would be just for me. I originally started writing Nirvana Bites purely so I’d have something to read at each meeting. In fact, I was well over halfway through before I even realised I was writing a complete novel. So, yes, I most certainly think a good writers’ group can make a difference and I will always credit EDWG for setting me off on my authorial journey.
Most of the people I knew could, in some way or another, be considered to be misfits and I wanted them to be the stars in their own story, not eclipsed by a professional who parachutes in from outside.
So 2002 Nirvana Bites is published. It’s a book that sees you explore the different sub- cultures, what drew you to writing it?
Like many authors, I wrote the kind of book I wanted to read. Although my reading tastes are incredibly diverse, I do love a good thriller. But most tend to be police procedurals or feature a main character who is some other kind of professional and an outsider to the crime itself. I wanted to create a story about ‘ordinary’ people whose lives were caught up in the crimes. Having said that, I suppose ‘ordinary’ is open to interpretation. Most of the people I knew could, in some way or another, be considered to be misfits and I wanted them to be the stars in their own story, not eclipsed by a professional who parachutes in from outside.
A few years earlier, I had been living in a housing co-op. In fact, we had been evicted when I was seven months pregnant and the council repossessed the properties. By making the co-op and its members the setting for my story, I was able to keep the flames flickering and grant some kind of immortality to that way of life.
You state that you write dark thrillers, is there a freedom for you in this genre? Would you ever write in another?
Interesting question. It’s certainly the genre I’m most drawn to, though I sometimes worry a bit about what might be lurking in the dark corners of my psyche. There’s more humour in my earlier novels; I’ve found my writing has become even darker as I’ve gone on, though I take great care never to be gratuitous in depicting violence and so on. I don’t think there’s any point in me trying to avoid my dark side. It’s where the stories take me every time. If your inner voice is that strong, there’s no point trying to shout it down, no matter where it leads you.
the characters from Nirvana Bites muscled their way back in so I decided that, since I’d created them and they were now ‘out there’, living their lives whether I wrote about them or not, then I might as well let them take part in this new story. And, yes, I do know how that sounds. Just sayin’ it like it is.
Trading Tatiana is your second novel, how do you feel your writing changed from Nirvana Bites and what did releasing your first teach you about the industry?
I’m not sure the writing did change that much. Once again, I started with a vague idea and a single line and then followed where the story and characters led me. I didn’t intend to write a series initially and assumed Trading Tatiana would have a completely different cast. But the characters from Nirvana Bites muscled their way back in so I decided that, since I’d created them and they were now ‘out there’, living their lives whether I wrote about them or not, then I might as well let them take part in this new story. And, yes, I do know how that sounds. Just sayin’ it like it is.
As for the industry, I was in a very unusual position. Most authors have a pile of unpublished MSs under their beds and gather a large heap of rejection slips before they’re published. The reverse was true for me. As I said, I didn’t set out to write a novel and I had created the story purely for my own entertainment. It honestly never occurred to me that it might end up being published, nor did I have any plans to submit to agents or publishers. The deal with Orion quite literally fell into my lap in a way that would never happen in the current climate where the big trade publishers wouldn’t dream of signing an un-agented author.
After completing your third novel De Nada Nirvana you signed with your agent. Can you tell us how that benefited you as an author? And how did that lead you to write Me, John and a
Hindsight is a savage beast and it’s clear now that I was naïve and unprepared for the real world of publishing. I wonder how differently things may have turned out if I’d had an agent from the beginning. But, hey, what’s done is done. Trading Tatiana suffered from a string of unrelated incidents – some of them genuinely tragic – which meant that it went through a string of editors and there was no one left at the publishers who was invested in the novel and in my career. At the same time, with no agent, there was no one at all to fight my corner. So belatedly, I started approaching agents and signed with the third one that I approached as he seemed to totally get me and my writing.
I had already written De Nada Nirvana and knew I was unlikely to be offered a new deal with the same publisher. So my agent was faced with having to sell the third book in a trilogy: a far from easy task. He suggested I should continue the series, with each book having a stand-alone plot but continuing the journeys of the series characters. In the end, I wrote five books in the Nirvana series; the fourth was Me, John and a Bomb and the final one was The Gene Pool. My agent was enthusiastic about each one and refused to give up, even when he was unable to sell the previous novels. He has always said he thinks they would make an ideal TV series. Last year, he reluctantly agreed that it was unlikely they would be picked up now and so I should go ahead and self-publish them. That’s the next stage of the plan.
it gives me huge pleasure to be able to earn a living from working with words and stories, even when they’re not my own… It’s such a privilege to be a part of other people’s authorial journeys.
You are also a wonderful editor and mentor. How did you become involved in the Writers’ workshop and mentoring other authors?
Thank you! That really means a lot to me. I gave up the day jobs in 2005 and decided to devote all my time to writing in one form or another, although I knew it would be a struggle to pay the rent. In my typical arse-upwards fashion, I did this only after my advance had run out so I needed to have another source of income. It was my agent who suggested that I draw on my experiences in EDWG and of being published and approach some of the literary consultancies with a view to doing critiques. I discovered I seem to have a talent for it and it gives me huge pleasure to be able to earn a living from working with words and stories, even when they’re not my own.
I initially started teaching creative writing when Emma Darwin and I ran Real Life beginners’ and self-editing courses. I’ve learnt a huge amount from Emma and developed the confidence to believe I had something useful I could share with other writers. Since then, I have run workshops and courses on almost every aspect of creative writing and getting published. It’s such a privilege to be a part of other people’s authorial journeys.
Do you think that teaching on the Self-Edit course helped you with your writing experience and have those experiences enriched your writing?
Without question! We’ve just embarked on the 13th online self-edit course and I can honestly say that I learn more each time we run it. Each course, and each student on it, brings new projects, new personalities and new challenges.
Those are now available and it’s great to know my first novels will be accessible to a whole new readership. That’s now given me the impetus to edit the others in the series, with a view to self-publishing them. I just need to find the time …
Can you tell us a little bit about how your series has found a new home? Could you talk to us a little about the process and when they will be released?
Dzanc approached me via Facebook to express an interest in publishing my 6th novel, Somebody’s Child, which is the first which is not part of the Nirvana series. My agent wanted to try other avenues but I was interested in Dzanc’s rEprint series and they offered me a contract to e-publish Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana. Those are now available and it’s great to know my first novels will be accessible to a whole new readership. That’s now given me the impetus to edit the others in the series, with a view to self-publishing them. I just need to find the time …
You are also one of the co-conspirators of the Stories for Homes anthology. Can you tell us a little about how you and Sally Swingewood approached the project?
SfH was a blast! Sally and I had never met, even though our children are very close friends, until Sal held a small party to celebrate moving into a safe and secure home. She told me she wanted to turn her negative experiences with housing into something positive. Her idea was to create an anthology of short stories on the theme of ‘home’ and donate the profits to the housing charity, Shelter. This was right up my proverbial alley. Sal and I worked really well together and, fuelled by copious quantities of caffeine and cake, we pulled together a fabulous collection of stories and a wonderful community of authors and supporters, all dedicated to making a difference. The anthology was published in record time, thanks to the collective efforts of the community, and rocketed straight into the top of the Amazon charts, raising over £2,000 from sales of the e-book and paperback within a few months.
Quick fire round
- What is your strength as a writer?
An ability to block out the real world and enter the story-zone.
- What is your ‘typical’ writing day?
Ain’t no such animal. I don’t write every day and suspect there’s nothing typical about any aspect of my life.
- When readers pick up your books, what would you most like to hear them say?
The feedback that has meant the most to me has been from people who said it was the first time they had read a book and recognised their own lives in those of my characters.
- What would you least like them to do/say?
- Who is your literary idol? Why?
I’m not a great one for idolatry but I respect anyone who is dedicated to their craft and is generous to others.
- If you could have written any book, which one would it have been?
So many … The answer would probably depend on whatever I’m reading at the time.
- What is your ‘tic’ word when writing?
My characters are always ‘freezing’ – as in stopping still, not feeling chilly.
- Favourite word?
- Least favourite word?
- What would you most like to develop in your writing?
More words, more worlds, more stories.
A big thank you to Debi for taking the time out to chat to me here. Below is the blurb about Nirvana Bites & Trading Tatiana and you can find her on
Jen is applies for a job at the BBC but her chances are thwarted by her prospective employer, Stanley Highshore. In a delicate emotional state after being blackmailed, he’s up a ladder in his BBC office clad in very little and with his numerous piercings on show. Jen
recognises him as Stapled Stan – a regular on the south London S&M scene. Terrified that his seedy secrets will be disclosed, and with his life as the respectable husband of a Conservative MP in jeopardy, Jen is enlisted to find and confront his blackmailers. After an encounter with two armed men (who she fights off with the judicious use of a couple of fire extinguishers and an axe!) Jen seeks the help of her Nirvana Housing Co-op neighbours. It soon becomes clear that an inconspicuous aquatic shop, Koi Korner, is hiding some dark secrets.
Fast-paced and witty, Nirvana Bites features numerous sub-cultures – from New Agers to new technology buffs, from anarchists to fascists, from animal rights activists to abattoir workers, from media executives to transsexual fetishists. Bursting with energy, it’s a brilliantly observed comic triumph and heralds the arrival of a highly individual and hilarious new voice.
From the author of Nirvana Bites comes a sparkling, fast-paced and blackly comic second novel, Trading Tatiana. It tells the story of an unlikely good Samaritan, and a runaway teenage prostitute and the events that unfold when their lives collide.
Jo Cooper leads an uneventful life, selling jewellery on a Greenwich market stall, babysitting her neighbours’ kids, and trying not to pay too much attention to the noises made by the S&M devotees who live next door. Home for Jo is a top floor flat in the Old Kent Road council block, Boddington Heights. An ex-drug-addict herself, she has a penchant for rescuing people: waifs and strays, like the Ukrainian refugee whose cause she champions and the man in buttock-less leather trousers she finds chained to the roof of her building. But Jo’s inability to walk away from a crisis lands her in trouble when a day-trip to Brighton ends with her helping a frightened girl to escape from some Russian thugs. The mysterious woman overturns Jo’s life, plunging her into the world of illegal immigration and prostitution rackets where human lives are ruthlessly traded and violence and distrust are rife.
Sparkling, fast-paced and blackly comic, Trading Tatiana is the story of an unlikely Good Samaritan and a runaway teenage prostitute determined to hold on to her secrets – and of the events that unfold when their lives collide.