Sally Zigmond Interview
Posted on 03 May 2009. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to novelist and award-winning short story writer Sally Zigmond
Tell us all about your writing background- what you’ve written, what you’re currently writing
It seems strange to me now that although I’ve loved reading and writing from an early age and studied English Literature at University, it never occurred to me to write until I enrolled in a local creative writing class about fifteen years ago. After that, there was no stopping me! I began by writing articles. These were mainly travel features for caravan magazines but I soon found writing non-fiction too restrictive because I had to stick to the facts and my imagination was itching to be let loose. Writing fiction more fun but a lot harder to place. After a lot of trial and error, failure and rejection, I learned to master the differing requirements of both commercial and literary fiction and for a while I was quite successful in short story competitions. Writing for competitions is a great discipline; they teach you to work to a strict deadline and also to exercise one’s imagination by aiming to be different from every other entrant.
One of the first people to encourage me was Jo Derrick (then Jo Good) when she ran QWF magazine. She encouraged and supported me and we’re now great friends. I also met many other writers through QWF and learned a lot, especially when I helped Jo out for a while by reading all submissions. Again, it was hard work but very rewarding and it taught me a lot about short story writing by seeing what worked and what didn’t and why.
I was fortunate enough, one year, to win first prize in the annual Biscuit Short Story competition. As well as a generous cash prize, I was given the chance to write either a collection of short stories or a 40,000 word novella. As I had never written anything longer than 5,000 words before, I felt I was ready to take on the challenge of something longer and more complex. The result was Chasing Angels, a novella about the real-life, Henriette d’Angeville, French aristocrat and mountaineering pioneer who climbed Mont Blanc in 1838. It was published in 2007.
All this time, I had been writing an historical novel. In fact, I wrote two. The road to publication proved long and frustrating journey involving much rejection and several major rewrites. Eventually, my determination paid off and Hope Against Hope will be published by Myrmidon Books in June 2009.
I am now currently rewriting my second novel. As a light-weight saga, it failed to find publication so I am now revamping it and improving it for a different market and hope it will be successful next time around.
Other work besides writing; ie. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works/worked for/against your own writing
I have been a member of The Historical Novel Society (www.historicalnovelsociety.org) from its earliest days. I was co-ordinating editor of its review magazine, The Historical Novels Review for some time. I loved the job but found it was increasingly eating into my writing time so I am no longer so actively involved although I do still write reviews.
I have run several writing workshops, which I enjoy and have judged several short story competitions; another pleasure! I find myself increasingly drawn towards editing, mainly for writing friends or on writers’ forums. In fact, I wish I’d made editing my career. I love encouraging new writers and I gain as much pleasure when someone I’ve mentored achieves publication than when I do myself! However, I don’t have much patience for those who refuse to learn their craft and work hard. Writing to a publishable standard is not easy but if you have talent and you’re prepared to work hard, success will come your way.
But my love of editing isn’t totally altruistic. By reading other people’s writing, seeing the same mistakes made again and again, I can see what works and what doesn’t in fiction and bear it in mind in my own output.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I can’t say that any one writer has influenced me or that I have any particular favourite writers. I read more novels written by women, not through any conscious gender choice, but because women tend to write the kind of novels I prefer to read! Having said that, there are plenty of male writers who understand women—Thomas Hardy is a classic example.
I love Rose Tremain, Helen Dunmore, Anita Shreve, Kate Atkinson and Juliet Myerson but I don’t restrict myself to my favourites and will pick up anything that catches my eye. I also read a wide variety of fiction for review but for preference I read historical fiction. I don’t read a lot of crime although I have read every one of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels.
And my secret indulgence is reading the Jim Stringer-railway detective historical novels by Andrew Martin. They’re set in ‘my’ part of Yorkshire and are very, very funny.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
I haven’t got an agent—yet. As to how I found a publisher for my novel, it took a long time—about ten years, a lot of hard work, rewriting and submitting.
What's the worst thing about writing?
Getting going in the morning. I waste so much time after I’ve switched on the computer, checking emails and catching up on blogs, websites, and forums such as Write Words! I tell myself that because they’re all writing-related, that it’s relevant and essential—which they are—but they’re also classic displacement activity.
And the best?
Everything else. I love getting stuck into a new project. It doesn’t happen very often but I just love it when I find I’m steaming along and several hours pass without my noticing it. But, best of all, I love rewriting. It’s so rewarding seeing a messy first draft develop from an ugly duckling into (hopefully) a swan.
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