RJ Samuel has a fascinating background. She was born in Nigeria to Indian parents but succumbed to the allure of Ireland where she completed her medical studies and continued to live for thirty years. She also had a few years sojourn in France, and now she plans to move to Texas.
Her novels reflect her varied life with settings from Galway to Kerala and a compelling mix of genres. Her debut, Heart Stopper, was a medical thriller which she followed with two magical realism tales, Falling Colours and Casting Shadows. A Place Somewhere will be published in March and is a tale of online deception.
Over to RJ:
I want to start by thanking Clare Ashton and Cari Hunter for the opportunity to write this guest blog post and for their great work with this site. I’m in awe of their energy and their willingness to put in this effort alongside their own author work and busy lives. Thanks to Clare for taking the time to ask the specific questions that made me organise my thoughts.
Aw shucks. Thanks RJ. Now stop procrastinating and answer the questions
Please tell us about your latest novel A Place Somewhere. What’s it about in a nutshell and what was the inspiration behind the characters and story.
‘In a nutshell’…this is the part I find the most difficult. To summarise the months of searching, writing, scrapping, re-writing, thinking, pretending to write etc. into a neat little shell.
The inspiration for this story came from a personal experience that shattered my view of the world. It may not have been much of a thing in the grand scheme of things, but it changed me. A friend helped me in the immediate aftermath and advised me to try to write a story. So I did. A short story called The Alleyway (which ended up being shortlisted for the 2013 Over the Edge ‘New Writer of the Year’ competition). And then, as usually happens with me, the seed of a novel sprouted in the ruins, and it grew into a different story, not a personal one, and yet so personal.
To actually answer the question – The novel, in a nutshell, is about love and deception and the destruction of belief. It is about how the effects of being deceived change a person until for them there is no black and white anymore, and while that might be a good thing in many ways, it leaves them seeing in grey.
After your last novel, you had some trouble writing. What grabbed you about this book to get you going again?
I had trouble writing after the last novel because it was my ‘muse’ for that novel that had deceived me. But not just my external muse, my internal muse as well. In some ways, the betrayal by my internal muse was the part that rocked me the most. If I could not trust myself to ‘know’ the truth then I might never be able to see what was real and what was fake. I retreated into a cave and if there hadn’t been that one friend who refused to let me be alone there, I might have given up. It was a struggle to emerge from the experience at the same time that I was forcing myself to write about similar experiences. Perhaps I should have taken a complete break from writing. I did, in a way. In the last year, I have not been able to write any short stories or other fiction apart from that short story which was an immediate reaction to what had happened, The Alleyway, and the novel, A Place Somewhere. I think, though, that fictionalising and therefore growing a completely new story from that initial ‘bad’ seed has helped me on a personal level to grow in a more healthy way than I would have stuck in a cave with no light.
I had fully intended, as a challenge to myself, to attempt to write a romance as my fourth novel, but my genre-breaking-marketing nightmare-fusion thing got in the way again (as it did in Heart Stopper, which started out as a pure medical thriller and grew to become a story that was also about belonging and culture and love). It felt wrong to be writing a ‘romance’ when I did not believe anymore. It took quite a few months for me to let go of the idea that I would be failing if I couldn’t write a romance and I just wrote what felt right to me.
How does A Place Somewhere differ from your other novels?
While this novel is different in style to the other three novels (actually, each has a different style as I change and grow), it still reflects my voice. I think the most surprising thing for me was I found that the most difficult part (apart, of course, from the daily ripping open of wounds), to be that I didn’t have the backup and comfort of writing from the POV of an Irish-Indian or an Indian. Before I started this novel, I didn’t think that would be a problem because I had written short stories from many different perspectives, a young straight white guy, an older white male, a young white female, a middle-aged Indian woman…. In fact, at one of my first readings in Galway, I read out a story from the POV of a straight older white male who loved a younger woman, and the organiser of the event told me that an older white man had come up to her after and expressed amazement that the story had been written by a young (ahem), Indian, lesbian woman. I thought that if I could experience love for a woman then I could write that believably from the point of view of anyone who loved a woman. However, with the novel, I found myself struggling to write from the point of view of someone who was meant to belong to the society in which they lived. I did ask a white Irish woman born and brought up in Ireland what it felt like to belong somewhere and I got some interesting thoughts because we couldn’t communicate exactly what the issue was, as from her point of view, the default was being from somewhere. I eventually let go of the need to get it ‘right’ and just wrote from the point of view of human beings growing up with the struggles that shaped them. The writing got a little easier once I had found out what those individual struggles were for my characters.
You are known for having wonderful Irish settings in your novels. What kind of mood and setting does this one have?
I think this novel is not as descriptive with the settings as the other three novels were. I write descriptions of setting as an extension of the character’s feelings about a place. So for Kiran in Falling Colours, even nature conspires with her emotions on seeing Ashley for the first time. I wrote the first section of A Place Somewhere (set for a few days in New York, Boston, and Cape Cod) before I went to Provincetown in October, thinking that I would use my visit to enhance the descriptions of the settings. But I ended up leaving the text alone.
This was a conscious choice because the main character, Alex, is seeing the world from a barren place. Parts of the story are set in the Burren in County Clare, which is a stunning place and full of magic, but I have restricted the description to how Alex feels about being there. I had to enlist the help of another writer who lives in another setting in the book (Washington State, thanks Tonie!) to get a feel for that area, as the budget did not extend to crossing America.
The majority of the novel is set in a ‘ghost estate’ on the outskirts of Galway. This is probably a setting that many of my readers from outside of Ireland will not see or hear about, though there was a recent article in the New York Times about these estates that are now dotted around Ireland. Similarly, many readers might not realise that people, young and old, never got to live in their homes, have lost their homes or are struggling to survive in these estates. There have been many suicides in this country as a direct result of the corruption of the banks and government. However, my setting is not a true description of the difficulties of ghost estates as it just happened to be a setting and not the reason for the story. I don’t write about these things as issues and I definitely do not presume to speak for anyone because I do not feel like I have the necessary detailed knowledge for political or social commentary. I write stories about fictional people in fictional situations and if they happen to be in circumstances such as these, then a wider audience may learn that there is something going on in this corner of the world and make a choice to learn more about it if it interests them.
This particular story could have spread in so many different ways, but I made a decision to focus on one person’s journey through deception. In one way, the ‘place’ is not important and while there are a lot more places in this novel than in the other three, I wanted a sense of dislocation, of displacement, to get across the sense that where you are physically sometimes does not really matter when it comes to how you feel.
I have to say that no matter how hard I tried to keep the mood dark because the subject matter is dark, I found that there were elements of humour and lightness peeping out. I think the mood shifts over the course of the novel (as it did for me over the course of the nine or ten months I spent writing it). And there is a kid and a dog in it. (Yes, I’m deliberately leaving that hanging there).
What elements of your writing have your readers loved and are common across your work?
I did a quick check with a tiny wee sample of readers and this is what I got back… Can I just say I love that I can email some of my readers (at all hours of the day/night) and they come back with these responses off the top of their heads. I might just shut up from now on and let my readers speak more for me. These responses are from my first/beta readers of A Place Somewhere, so they are including the fourth novel in their views.
“No two stories of yours are the same, characters that I can identify with (i.e. get to like or not), consistently well written and edited books, your style is unique, you write what your muse tells you and not what you think people want to hear, you don’t write inside the box and put out books full of sex, but you make your books a nice comfortable easy read, books I would want to read again and again.”
“Great character development, even the secondary characters are well developed… self effacing humour, it’s a little thing, but when the subject matter gets heavy and angst levels begin to rise, your natural turn of phrase brightens some pretty dark scenes. Your ability to draw the reader into the scene… Through your characters, you voice what many of your readers cannot. You are not afraid to express deep and sometimes profound feelings. Your prose turns your books from everyday Lesfic into literary Lesfic. Your writing is a pleasure to read.”
“incredible twists and turns…keeps me guessing, engaging characters – with human/realistic strengths and flaws, enchanting descriptions of Ireland (makes me want to travel), captivating story and character development, beautifully written sentences and dialogue, warmth and subtle humour, main characters are women on compelling journeys, challenging and thought-provoking…sometimes it is good to be taken beyond your comfort zone!, I love reading a book that entertains, challenges, explores my emotions, teaches me new things, leaves me satisfied, but impatient to read your next! All your books do this…”
My readers seem to be quite a diverse group. I have readers who are from completely different backgrounds and are varied in terms of their sexuality, race, beliefs, cultures. I write for myself, but I write also for that perfect reader, the one who connects to something, anything, in my writing and my words make them think and feel something different, even for a moment. I guess therefore, all my readers are my perfect reader because I’ve heard from them that my writing has affected them in some positive way. (I know that’s a skewed sample but so what, it makes me happy and shouldn’t what can sometimes be a painful job bring some happiness?)
What are your plans now?
I hope to do some work on the Vision Painter series (graphics and re-branding and packaging etc., maybe a book trailer).
And another type of hard work starts now with the publishing and post-publishing process of getting the book out there, where I will have to begin a conversation about things that still have the power to hurt.
I haven’t even mentioned that one of the characters in A Place Somewhere is a musician/songwriter and she writes a song (well, I wrote the words) and I’ve been trying to get it put to music and recorded to release with the book. I got great background on the creative process for musicians from another author who is also a singer/musician (thanks Jodie). I really wanted the singer for A Place Somewhere to be local and Irish and lesbian and I’m delighted to have the possibility now of working with a singer whose voice and guitar-playing I have loved from the first moment I heard her perform here over 20 years ago. I’m waiting to see this week if the words work for her. If they do, I hope that the song will be ready to release in the middle of March with the book. Note how positive I’m being This is not an impossible task. After months of procrastination, I finally asked her yesterday and sent the words to the poor woman and now she only has a week
My real plans, however, are to avoid talking to anyone or doing anything that might sow the seed for another novel. I said after I published Casting Shadows that my mind needed a break. That might have been courting disaster. I had two weeks of calm before my world blew up and that seed landed in the ruins.
Though…I am moving to a strange land with my wee dog after 30 years in Ireland…. Sounds like fertile ground…Nooooooooo….
So why the devil are you moving to Texas?