This month Lisa Fransson’s debut novel The Shape of Guilt is published, with a launch at Brighton’s Waterstones bookshop. Lisa took the Creative Writing Programme from 2014-2016. Here she talks about her writing life.
When do you first remember wanting to be a writer? From the age of four. I have a black notebook with stories that I wrote starting at the bottom of the page and writing upwards. I grew up in deeply rural Sweden so one of these stories is about a wild ferret that wiled its way into our lives briefly.
Why did you decide to join the Creative Writing Programme? Even though I’ve wanted to write stories for as long as I can remember, I didn’t believe it was something I could do. Writers were “other”, with some special power that I surely lacked. I was very much conditioned by my environment, where starvation and the mass emigrations to America were within living memory. So I got myself an education and a proper job. It was only when I had children that I lost my fear and started writing seriously, but I realised quite quickly that I needed tools. I found The Creative Writing Programme while searching online and made up my mind to enrol as soon as my youngest started school. I only had to wait four years.
Who were your tutors? Mark Slater and Susannah Waters
What was the most impactful element of the course for you? Being immersed into the writing world – meeting other writers, exploring literature on writing, sharing work, sharing the love for books. It was all new to me.
Did you start writing The Shape of Guilt on the course? I had planned to work on something different during the course. A book that I’d spent two years researching. But I became overwhelmed by the scope of the project, so instead I pulled The Shape of Guilt out of the drawer. It was story I’d started to work on when I’d taken up writing again after having children, and that became my focus for the entire course. In fact, the ending came about in class during an exercise Susannah set us. I remember feeling excited when I realised that this was the only possible direction the story could take, but also uneasy because I felt it was pushing boundaries.
What happened after the course finished? I started submitting stories and poems long before the course was over. Most of it I look at now and cringe, but it was a necessary learning experience. Both a way to practise the craft in a real sense, but also to learn how to deal with rejection, and it yielded a result as I had my first short story published in The Dark Mountain Project before the course was finished. Since then, I’ve had several pieces of short fiction published and short-listed. All the time I continued working on The Shape of Guilt, but as this book is such an intense piece of work I needed mental breaks. During one of those breaks I wrote a children’s book manuscript in my native Swedish, which was accepted for publication. I’ve since had five children’s books published over there with another one currently in production.
How did you finish your novel and get your publishing deal? Not easily. I remember during the first lesson when Mark introduced the course, he said “In my experience it’s not the most talented writers who get published, it’s the most tenacious ones.” And I thought “Tenacious I can do.” As I started to get shorter pieces published, I realised that the publishing world is about building relationships with people. If someone gets your work, then keep hold of them. And it is possible to turn a “no” into a “yes” if handled in the right way. My agent, Intersaga Literary Agency, turned me down, but we kept in contact and two years later we signed. My publisher also turned me down. Several times. But with feedback. So it was a matter of going back in and editing and rewriting, until it was accepted. I think we were in contact for four years before we signed for The Shape of Guilt.
Tell us about The Shape of Guilt The Shape of Guilt is a piece of experimental literary fiction with streaks of magical realism. A mother watches over her son in an ICU after he’s tried to commit suicide in order to save the world from the worst of himself. The story is narrated by Robert Bunny, a toy bunny rabbit, who is doing his utmost to save the family he so desperately wants to be a part of.
What’s next for you? It’s hard to think past the launch on 12th October at Waterstones in Brighton, but I am working on a second novel. This novel is the one that overwhelmed me, the one that I put aside in favour of The Shape of Guilt when starting the course. Whereas The Shape of Guilt plays out in a hospital room, this second one sprawls, in terms of time, geography and narrative strands. I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to pull it all together, but I have learned to trust in the process.
Do you have a ‘day’ job in addition to your writing career and, if so, how do they complement one another? Yes, I’m a freelance translator and proofreader. I believe that working as a full-time translator for 20 years is what has made me able to write in two languages. As a translator you extract the meaning of a text and then transform it into a different language, so it’s less about exchanging one word for another and more about using two different heads which each contain entire cultural universes – an English head and a Swedish head. Translation has also helped me refine my language, to be concise and to the point.
What are your top tips for someone starting out in their writing career? Find your writing community, acquire the tools, focus on the craft and remember that with writing, it’s impossible to fail.
What’s your final piece of advice? Be tenacious.
Lisa Fransson’s debut novel The Shape of Guilt is available at Kemptown Bookshop and through Bookshop.org. Please support your local library and independent bookshops wherever you can. You can find out more about Lisa on her website.