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Christine Coleman

16 August 10 words: Robin Lewis
Hong Kong is the setting for Paper Lanterns, a novel by a former NTU Creative Writing student
"Sometimes, NOT being published is a good thing! My first novel, A Head for Heights, was written over 20 years ago, and I’m profoundly grateful it was never published."

Unhappy families are always more interesting than happy ones.  Cherished grudges, ancient secrets and private little nuggets of bitterness make for a far more engaging story than everybody playing croquet on the front lawn with nary a care in the world.  And so it is in Paper Lanterns, a novel by Christine Coleman.  Ann is a middle-aged woman nursing long-held anger towards her mother, a seemingly flighty woman in the Joan Collins mould who left Ann’s father many years before to live in Hong Kong with some unsuitable young rake.  Now, years later, Ann visits her mother on the far side of the world and begins to dig up the bones of old family secrets.

Proving that apples don’t fall far from trees, some old letters she finds suggest that dear old Grandma was a bit of a goer in her youth as well, scandalising the somewhat strait-laced Ann and dousing the simmering sense of betrayal she’s had on the backburner for her mother all these years.  The characters are well drawn and engaging, and the setting benefits by being laid out by a writer who plainly loves the area.  It isn’t overly difficult to guess the familial entanglements that are eventually uncovered, but the pleasure in the book is to be found in the characters and the details of the Hong Kong setting.

Paper Lanterns’ is Christine Coleman’s second novel, and has been published by Novel Press, a company set up by herself and several other graduates of the MA writing course at Nottingham Trent University.

Tell us about Paper Lanterns
My previous novels (published and unpublished) were all set in England, and I wanted a change. Hong Kong was the obvious place for me as I have family connections there and am fascinated by the way East and West, new and ancient, rub along side by side.

I’m interested in how our perceptions of ourselves and others are shaped in childhood, and how events in adulthood can force us to reassess our personal theory of reality later in life.  One aspect of this is the way our views of ‘right and wrong’ can become more flexible as we become more aware of the complexities of life, such as ‘infidelity’.

Our cultural attitude towards physical appearance is another key theme in the novel. Ann’s mother, grandmother and step sister are all beautiful, and this contributes to her own negative perception of herself.

I wanted the novel to include three generations of women, showing how the attitudes and experiences of the first affect her daughter’s approach to motherhood, and how the granddaughter is affected in her turn. But I wasn’t confident about creating a character from the 1920s or 30s, especially as I’d want to set it in Hong Kong.

How difficult was it to try and create an authentic-sounding voice for someone of that period?
These thoughts were still simmering away in my head when my husband (who collects old paper items from Hong Kong and China, such as postcards, theatre programmes, menus etc) showed me five letters written in China in 1920 by a married English woman to a young colleague of her husband. There were five letters that related to her, and the last of these had been written by a female friend of the woman, informing the young man why he had not heard from her friend. There were also the two short love-letters in broken English, written in 1916.  These letters gave me the key to the voice I needed. It was like tuning in to a different wave-length: once I had immersed myself in the letters I was set free to invent the grandmother’s journal in which she tells of her youthful love affair, and I found that the idioms and vocabulary flowed absolutely naturally. With the letters as a guide, I was able to give Belle a less formal voice than I might have done, e.g. contractions and colloquialisms such as ‘nuff said’.

How have reviewers found the setting and characters?
It’s always a risk if you’re writing about a place that other people know and love, so I was a little apprehensive when the owner of an on-line magazine on Lamma Island (where my sister lives) wanted to ask a member of his team to write a review.  There’d been no need to worry – he felt I’d captured the spirit of the place, and I’ve had similar compliments from other residents of Lamma and Reader's comments.

Christine with her novel, overlooking the beautiful scenery in which Paper Lanterns was set.

It took you several novels and many years before finally finding a publisher: how difficult was it to keep going?
Sometimes, NOT being published is a good thing! My first novel, A Head for Heights, was written over 20 years ago, and I’m profoundly grateful it was never published. Though I didn’t realise this at the time, it was merely an apprentice piece. The other benefit of that experience was the gradual process of developing a thickening skin. I had also learned that it was a good idea to have two or three possibilities at the same time, so that when the postman handed over yet another rejected package (usually the standard 3 chapters and synopsis) there was still another hope or two out there.

The occasional non-standard rejection letter with encouraging comments helped, but fortunately there were some more tangible affirmations. The most important one for me was winning a competition run by East Midlands Arts – the prize was to have The Literacy Consultancy give me a free read of the first hundred pages of my next novel, In the Lamb-White Days, which was started when I was on a Creative Writing Course at Nottingham Trent University.

I was thrilled when, after I’d implemented several suggested amendments, my novel was deemed worthy of publication. Sadly, it came to nothing in the end: none of the agents to whom I was directed to by TLC was willing to take me on. However, that gave a huge boost to my confidence – I wasn’t ‘rubbish’ - highly experienced and talented people were confirming me as a ‘real writer’.

I received some early encouragement for my third novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society, when a writing course tutor directed me to a friend of hers, a commissioning editor for Orion. She loved it. But, the rest of the team were worried. Why? Because it was a ‘difficult subject’. Another writing friend of mine was able to explain something which is even more important today than it was in 2003: ‘difficult’ means that the Sales and Marketing team won’t find it easy to slot into a neat category. 

Finally being published must have felt great.  How did you feel seeing your name on the cover of a book?
Anyone who’s interested can read on my website about how I felt when the publisher, Nikki Read of Transita phoned me in February 2005 to say that they wanted to publish my novel. My book was launched in October that same year. I’ll never forget the excitement of opening a parcel with my own copy of the book. My own book!! I wrote my name and the date in it at once, and that’s the one I read from whenever I give talks to reading or writing groups.

The launch was one of the best evenings of my life. Fortunately, I was able to fully savour the experience while keeping one of my feet on the ground. I wasn’t going to give up my day job; I knew it wouldn’t change my life, but I hadn’t anticipated the opportunities I’d have for giving talks and readings in my role as a published novelist, and how much I would enjoy these.

To create authentic characters, Christine used five letters written in China in 1920 by a married English woman.

The publisher for your first book, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society, withdrew from publishing fiction after two years.  You've since started your own publishing house with fellow graduates of the Creative Writing M.A. at Nottingham Trent University.  How have you found that experience?
As I didn’t have an agent, it was even more difficult to find a publisher for Paper Lanterns. After approaching another 40 or so agents and a few publishers without success, I eventually realised that I’d reached the end of the road. It was while I was investigating the various authors’ services companies that the members of my M.A. writing group encouraged me to start a publishing house that we would all be able to benefit from.

At that time, Paper Lanterns was the only novel to be ready for publication, so it became the first product of Novel Press I have learned a huge amount about all the practical details of bringing a book into print that I’d never had to think of, both pre and post-publication.

Because of the Hong Kong setting of my book, I felt that there’d be more chance of getting Paper Lanterns into bookshops there, so when I went to Hong Kong this February I took some copies with me.

I was right! I was able to arrange a meeting with the manager of one of Hong Kong’s major bookshop chains, and she ordered 20 copies on the spot. These stores have a section for ‘books of Chinese interest’ which I was pleased to see included novels. Since then, I have received orders from another two bookshops on Lantau, one of the largest outlying islands.

I have also persuaded a few independent bookshops in England to stock some copies, but my main outlet is likely to be through giving talks to reading or writing groups and other word of mouth methods, especially the internet. Just yesterday I sent off a package of ten books to a book-reading group in Tennessee which would have read one of the on-line reviews of Paper Lanterns.

What's next for you, and for Novel Press?
My head is still too full of my publishing and marketing venture to contemplate another novel just yet. As for Novel Press, it’s still in its infancy. I would like it to publish books from other members of the group, and after that, we might be able to think about opening our doors to writers outside our circle. Meanwhile, Novel Press must create its own path through the challenging territory of the publishing and marketing world. I’m hoping it’ll be a brave new one.

Christine Coleman's website
 

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