Sian Norris is a writer, blogger and feminist activist based in Bristol.
“I used to run the Bristol Feminist Network. I’m the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival which took place in 2013, and then again in 2015. I run the feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com as well as writing for numerous other publications including Open Democracy and the Guardian, the New Statesman and the Independent. Right now I’m working on my second novel which is about Gertrude Stein and her circle. I’ve also written a couple of short stories which I self-published on the Kindle – it’s called The Boys on the Bus.”
2. Tell us a little about Greta and Boris?
Greta and Boris: A daring rescue is my first book, it’s a children’s novel for 7-11 year olds and it was published by Our Street in 2013, around the same time I was running the first Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. So as you can imagine it was a hectic time! It follows the adventure of a young girl called Greta who has a cat called Boris. However, what she doesn’t realise is that Boris is no ordinary cat – he’s the Prince of Cats! And he’s been catnapped by the very evil Rat King. As his human, Greta is the only person who can save him and so with the help of a warrior cat called Kyrie, she sets out on an adventure to rescue Boris. Her quest takes her through many magical lands including Cloud-Top land, the Milky Sea, the warring land of mice, the millpond of truth and then, of course, she must face the Rat King himself. The book is illustrated by Robert Griggs and his gorgeous pen and ink drawings really do bring everything to life. I’m really happy and proud of what the two of us achieved with the book.
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed since the book was published is that it has given me the opportunity to visit a few schools in the area and run writing workshops with the kids. It’s really inspiring to see how they respond to the book and to watch them as they come up with their own ideas and use language in new and exciting ways.
3. What inspired you to write it?
Ooh, good question! I think I was inspired by the kinds of books I read as a child. They mostly involved animals and girls going on adventures. It was really important to me that I wrote a book that had an interesting and active girl hero who got to have her own adventures and was self-determined and independent. I don’t think I started out to write a book where a Prince got kidnapped and rescued, but when I finished I realised I had written an inverse of the traditional fairy tale!
4. What advice would you give to other writers about writing a children’s novel?
I think it’s really important to write a story you believe in – the kind of story you would have wanted to read as a child. Children aren’t stupid, they can tell if you are writing something to patronise them. You have to enjoy the story you are telling, you have to be involved in the story and believe in the characters. Then your audience will feel the same.
For me, as I say, it was really important to write a book that featured girls going on adventures. A lot of people said to me that this would mean boys wouldn’t read it. I don’t think that’s true – I think boys can enjoy books written about girls. And I especially don’t think it’s a reason not to write about girls! We need to be expanding the stories we tell, not constricting them to fit with some poor ideas about gender stereotypes.
5. What advice would you give to other writers about getting a novel published?
My publisher isn’t a very traditional publisher – they are very much focused on bringing new authors in who haven’t been published before. So I was lucky to find them.
So what advice would I give? Read your story out loud. It’s the best way to hear the rhythms. Then keep re-drafting until you know you are no longer able to spot any errors. That’s when it’s time to hand it over to someone else to read, a friend whose opinion on writing and reading you trust, and from there on to an agent.
6. Are there any techniques or exercises that proved invaluable in helping to shape your ideas?
I never really had any creative writing training – I didn’t do an MA or a course or anything like that. However, I went on a Write like a Grrl day workshop earlier this year and learnt some really valuable things. The first is to try and spend at least 15 minutes a day working on your writing project. For years I’ve been in the trap of waiting for the ‘perfect time’ to sit down and write – which ended up putting all the pressure on getting up on a Saturday and then feeling stuck! But we all have 15 minutes in a day and it’s amazing what you can get done in that space. The 15-minute method meant I finally finished my latest novel – as well as a short story. If you have a chance to go on a Write like a Grrl course then I would urge you to – they’re brilliant.
7. What authors inspired you / what were you reading when writing Greta and Boris?
I found myself re-reading a lot of my favourite children’s books. Most of them feature girls going on adventures – so The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge and Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry. I love these books so much – they both feature amazing heroines who go out and get stuff done! They’re the stars of the story and overcome huge odds in order to save the lives of those they love.
8. If you could sit down with any author and have a one to one over tea and cake, who would that be?
Living or dead? Gertrude Stein. She was such an inspiring woman – she was a pivotal force in modernism both as a writer and a salon hostess. I’ve been researching her a lot for my new novel and I’m just fascinated by her. There are so many records of people talking about her conversation and her genius – there’s a great interview with Janet Flanner saying how when Stein laughed, everyone in the room laughed. That her laugh was like a signal. Stein was a modernist genius, her writing is as experimental and interesting as anything produced by James Joyce or TS Eliot, and yet she’s not widely read now. She’s seen more as a historical curiosity it seems to me, than as a genius in her own right. She’s better known for supporting the careers of men like Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald – she mentored male writers and then their reputations took over hers.
Plus her ‘wife’ Alice B Toklas made the best cakes! So it would definitely be those two. For the cake, the conversation and the chance to meet everyone else who flocked to her salons.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet two of the writers who have inspired me and continue to inspire me throughout my life – Ali Smith and Margaret Atwood.
9. What other projects do you balance with your novel writing career?
I’m the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. I started it in 2012 and we had our first programme of events in 2013, featuring writers as diverse as Bidisha, Helen Dunmore, Stella Duffy, Professor Helen Taylor, Emilia di Girolamo, Dr Kristin Aune…oh there were loads of women all talking about literature and writing and feminism to a packed audience. I did it again this year, in March 2015, and had Finn Mackay, Helen Lewis, Beatrix Campbell, Emma Rees, Professor Helen Hackett, Selma Dabbagh, Michele Roberts, Amy Mason, Helen Mort and Samantha Ellis speaking.
This year I also screened the film Paris was a Woman which is all about women creating literature and art in 1920s Paris.
The festival aims to celebrate the creative diversity of women writers and to try and provide a balance to the male-dominated literary scene. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of energy but I love it. I’m now starting to think about 2017 so watch this space…
I also write for various news sites and I run my blog, Sian and Crooked Rib, which is a space where I can write about feminism and politics.
And I work full time! So pretty busy!
10. What’s next for you?
I’ve finished drafting my new novel. It’s a grown up one this time! It’s set in Paris in the 1920s and tells the story of Leonie Lennox who, determined to escape her fate as a ‘surplus woman’ moves to the Left Bank to try and become a writer. Once there, she befriends everyone from Stein to Sylvia Beach to Hemingway. However, when she meets a young British writer and falls in love, she finds herself having to decide how it is she wants to live, and what it is that matters to her. The novel explores all sorts of issues including female friendship, class and reproductive rights. But most importantly, it’s a novel about a woman coming to find herself and becoming the woman she wants to be.
I love it! I’m now looking for an agent…so if anyone is reading this…!
11. Where can we find out more/ purchase your book from?
Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and is available on Amazon and other places. http://www.ourstreet-books.com/books/greta-boris