Interview with Author Carla Acheson

After graciously offering to interview me on her blog here I am now returning the favour. I’ve corresponded a lot with Carla over the past few weeks and I’m sure you’ll find her as interesting as I have. She’s talented in fields other than writing so I’ve talked to her about her singing career as well as her books, so without further ado here she is!
1. First of all welcome, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background.
Thanks very much for interviewing me, it’s a real novelty as I’m more used to interviewing others. Well, I grew up in the UK even though my family are from Gibraltar. At the age of fifteen my parents decided to return to the Rock and I have been too-ing and fro-ing from the Rock to the UK ever since. I have always been hugely creative and so it was no surprise to my family that I decided I wanted to sing and play music rather than work the normal nine to five! But Gibraltar, at that time, only had about two or three pubs to sing at so you can imagine my parents disapproval at my ambition.
Nevertheless, it did not put me off achieving everything I wanted. I took a two year business course in college and left with Distinctions in six subjects. I also began work in Barclays Bank. But that didn’t stop me engaging in my first love of music, so I performed with various bands in local venues in the evenings. Suffice to say I became known as the ‘singing bank clerk.’ A couple of years on in my twenties  I was ‘talent-spotted,’ so to speak, at a beauty pageant. The Music Director of a Casino met with me after the pageant and offered me a two year contract to sing at the glamorous Casino and that led on to many years of performing live in prestigious hotels and private occasions, both with bands and a solo singing career.
2. Your novel is called The Last Gift, could you tell me a bit about it?
I have always loved the idea of being a writer, and in my teens I’d pen many short stories and take them to the school playground for my school- friends to read. My stories would get passed around with pleas for sequels. It was fun and a great way to practice the craft.
I didn’t actually plan on writing a Victorian novel, I just got an idea for a story set in those times and it sparked off a whole new desire. I had been suffering with a very bad viral infection over Xmas 2010. It was during this dull stint in bed that I thought I’d complete one of my ambitions (just in case!) and in that rather uncomfortable physical situation I penned perhaps two thirds of the entire book in a first draft.  The weird thing is, it was almost as if I was taking dictation as the entire story flowed from one chapter to the next. I delved deeply into the Victorian underworld as I wanted the story to emphasise life for the abject poor, as opposed to the working and upper class Victorians. Throughout the story I led my poor heroine through hell, all the time trying to stay close to many of the actual historical facts which were prevalent at the time. I unearthed shocking diseases and the awful business of baby-farming which became central themes in the book. After I published the book I worried that the story was far too harrowing, however nearly every review since has been extremely positive, highlighting how well written and compelling the story is. 
3. As I understand it your background lies mainly in music and singing, what made you transition from that to writing?
It was easy to transition from singing to writing, as I love both activities. I first set up a website and blogged about performing live and giving general advice to musicians. I then took a two year writing course and learnt all the different aspects of writing. I also worked as an Editor for a music website and sold articles relating to music, performing and the industry. Up until that point nearly everything I produced was related to music in one way or another. Later on I decided I’d like to interact with other creative people and writers, so I set up The Rock Writers Group in my home-town and a small group of us have been meeting up weekly to discuss writing related issues for the past five years. I also at this time began to offer reviews to authors and publishers. Legend Press seemed to like my style of review and I happily interviewed and reviewed books for some of their successful authors such as Trisha Ashley,(the New York Times best-selling novelist), and Ruth Dugdall, (Luke Bitmead and Debut Dagger Award Winner.). Ruth became a friend and she absolutely loved ‘The Last Gift,’ which makes me very proud as it was my debut attempt at a novel. My happy career moment was having part of my review published in Waterstones Quarterly magazine.
4. Your collection of flash fiction, Never Trust Your Cellphone, which is wonderful by the way, is your latest release, what inspired you to try that form of writing?
I have read some flash fiction stories and found them interesting but they can vary widely in style and narrative, and I’m the type of person who loves learning new things and embracing new challenges. Recently I  decided to produce a small collection of quick reads, each between 200 and 1000 that actually say more to the reader than they do in length!. I really go for ‘characterisation’ in a very big way, and so I’d say most of them were based on an emotional context. The last story, however, was a bit of fun and hopefully creepy! It’s based on The Twilight Zone scene on the plane. I decided to modernise my version and have the story build up through text messages complete with cussing, jerky phrases and txt spk!  It might or might not work for some readers, but I think it is interesting to write creatively, and uniquely, and learn different ways and methods of touching an audience.
5. Was it hard to create compelling stories with such a strict word limit?
Yes and No. I have become very used to pruning. Actually, for me, it is harder to writer verbosely. I tend to prune as I write – a habit gleaned from my study years. The downside effect to that is that I often end up with far too few words, and later realise that I need to actually say more!
6. Have you been pleased with the reaction to your books so far?
I couldn’t have asked for more considering I decided to go it alone in the publishing world. I was offered a contract with an independent publisher for The Last Gift, but upon looking over the details of the contract I decided that being restricted in that way didn’t suit my intentions or purpose. As an independent person in every way I like to determine what happens to my creative output. I am not controlling, just cautious and maybe a tad protective. Over the years I have met and talked to traditionally published authors and I also have some contacts in the publishing industry, so there are many wise people to whom I can always seek advice.
For me, writing is definitely about the journey and I wouldn’t be too worried if I never made a penny on my work as fortunately I am financially stable. But having said that I have made more than I expected from my writing (and music) career thanks to the marketing decisions I have made and the time and effort I put into my work, so I cannot complain. One thing which stands out for me character-wise is patience. I would rather spend hours…days…weeks.. learning something myself than waiting around or relying on others to do it for me. I have recently begun practising some children’s illustrations so that I can work on some publications there. To that effect I am pretty savvy now in every area I enjoy whether it’s creating websites, marketing,  or music production where I produce in my home studio. 
7. What made you want to explore the Victorian period, have you always been drawn to that time in history?
Well every girl dreams of a dashing Victorian man capturing their heart, as portrayed in some novels. As a young girl I very much loved the typical downtrodden females in Bronte and Austen’s works, mainly for their feminine qualities. In reality though it was a very different story. I am drawn to the fragility of life in those times. For my novel I wanted to delve deeper into the poverty issue and show more of life in a day to day environment. We all know that Victorians were poor but do we know how they felt about that? Do we know what a poor young girl might do, think or feel if she got pregnant by an upper class boy?. More importantly, what were the options open to her? To that effect, I invented a young girl and threw her into the disease-ridden slums of Victorian London in the late nineteenth century. It wasn’t difficult at all to imagine her fears and desires. More importantly, the book showcases what life was like for young women then, and the cruel and often soul-destroying moral code they were expected to live by. 
8. What did you find most challenging about writing the novel, I imagine it must have needed a lot of research?
I delved a lot deeper into the Victorian era than I needed to, merely because each discovery led to another, and on and on. I was appalled at the way poor women were treated in factories, the nightmarish qualities of the disease phossy jaw, and how babies would be farmed to carers who ultimately poisoned them for monetary gain. I was also shocked that a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children came sixty-five years after the same society for animals. I decided that these sort of things deserved exploration, and whilst they would most likely shock readers they had to be written about, even if within a fictional context to remind us of how far we have come in terms of personal freedom, sanitary conditions and medical advancement.
The most challenging part of this book for me was researching the baby-farming issues. I am very sensitive to other people’s emotions and particularly their pain, and anything to do with cruelty and especially to children truly breaks my spirit. I have spent many hours dabbing my eyes with tissues whilst actually writing, to the point where I’ve had to stop, go out and distract myself. I would then sit and stare at the ocean for a while to remind myself of all that is good in the world. One friend said to me, “So why write sad stuff if it makes you cry.?” Well that would be like saying why peel onions!  One must face the facts of life, good or bad. I  truly needed to toughen up in that regard. Writing my book did that, and it mostly taught me how utterly persistent the human will to survive is, even at subsistence level with all hope gone, where people slept six to a bed with infested rats and diseased bodies, they’d still do anything to live.  
9. Are there any genres in particular you’d like to explore with your writing?
I think I’d love to work on a horror novel some day. I am a big Stephen King fan ever since I was became afraid of my own cat after reading Pet Sematary. The problem with horror is that it is difficult to write and actually ‘frighten’ people. I don’t personally go for zombies, or teen-obliterating masked freaks. Most horror produced these days is rather comic. For me horror is something which filters between reality and the supernatural like The Exorcist. The only thing stopping me from writing true horror is the fear of scaring myself during the process! Again, another case of ‘toughening up’ needed!
10. What are your current and upcoming projects?
As ‘The Last Gift’ was so well received I have been working on the first draft of a second novel which focuses on Jack The Ripper. In “The Last Gift” one of my characters writes a letter about how she witnessed a “bloody and brutal man” in Whitechapel’s back streets. I decided that I would take that concept into a second novel and include the Ripper theme in my setting, so the book centres around the lives of some of  the infamous prostitutes of Whitechapel, and is again, an imaginary and fictional account of how their own lives may have been lived. Another theme in the book centres around a 17th century publication called “Harris’ List.”  A ‘yellow pages’ circulation of all the Covent Garden whores working in the area at the time and included each of their merits and prices! I found that explicitly fascinating for the time period in which it was published. Maybe even Jack The Ripper had a copy. (hah!) At the moment this novel is  turning into a bit of a murder mystery, but then again, it could swing in another direction. That’s what I love about writing, you carve your own characters paths in every single stroke of your pen. 
Thanks to Carla for letting me interview her! 
Here’s a few links where you can find out more about her and her work.

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