Roshi Fernando is the prize-winning author of Homesick. Here, she tells us what inspires her to write, what projects she has coming up and her advice for aspiring writers.
*From the W&A Archive: This article was originally posted in 2013*
Why do you write?
My daughter put this very poetically: she said ‘for you, writing is like when someone’s in the middle of the ocean and all they can do is swim. All you can do is write.’ She was 8 when she said that.
Where do you write?
I write in a study shared with my kids – it’s stacked with books and baskets full of pastels, watercolours, glue, wool, fabric, cameras and so on. Also my ukelele, banjo and guitar. It’s a catch-all room. It should be marked ‘Pursuits’. I like its chaos.
What inspires you to write?
Giving the powerless a voice, love, beauty, truth. You know, the usual.
Homesick is your debut novel. Can you describe your route to getting published for the first time?
I have written since I was very young, but about seven years ago, I decided to commit to it. I signed up for a PhD, and in my final year, decided it would be a good idea to get published. I did my research – using the WAYB – of course! – and entered myself for many prizes. I won the Impress Prize for new writers. This was the first of many lucky steps: winning the prize attracted agents, and I was lucky to be signed by an agency (A.M. Heath) who had rejected me three times in the past (I kept all the rejection letters!). I then entered the Sunday Times EFG short story prize and was shortlisted, and on the back of this, I was lucky enough to be published by Bloomsbury.
Can you describe your typical working day? Has this changed markedly since publication?
My typical working day starts at 6.30am: we get the kids off to the school bus for 7.30, then my husband and I walk the dogs for an hour. I’m normally at my desk by 8.45, and stop once I have done a good amount of work. That normally means 2000 words (on a really good day in the middle of a project) or a scene for a story or a large amount of editing.
Each day is different: the work is very varied. But I work almost the same hours my husband works at his office. I break off an hour earlier, when the kids come in at 5.30. But I often go back to my desk in the evening to read through what I was working on during the day. I teach at a university now, so write lectures and mark papers too.
Has my working day changed since publication? I think my attitude has changed – before, I was on my own, trying to break through into the world on the other side of a slippery glass wall. Now I’m on that other side, I feel I have to work harder. And I do. I don’t always love the work I do – but I know I’m one of the luckiest people alive to be doing what I always wanted.
How has getting published affected you as a writer?
Ack – success was almost a mortal wound. Last year I was out publicising the book – it became a year of out of body experiences, where I would watch myself be this writer person who people had often paid money to see – so I was witty and charming, and then when it really mattered, I’d sabotage myself – I’d swear or tell a stupid story about myself in order, I suppose, to put myself back into place. I’m very British in that way – always at the back of my mind I have that ‘don’t get too big for your boots’ message playing.
It knocked my confidence in my writing enormously: I wanted to be anyone but me. I wanted to give my editors something truly wonderful. I handed them the first draft of my novel and Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury very kindly said ‘we didn’t want pyrotechnics: we wanted you.’ I’ve calmed down. The writing I’m doing now is better than I’ve ever done before. I think.
The road to publication for a first-time author is not necessarily a straightforward one – did you have to face rejection before securing a publishing deal? What other frustrations did you have to overcome?
Well, yes – lots of rejection. Also, lots of near misses: through the past twenty five years, I’ve won small prizes, had interest from one publisher or another, but when they suggested changes, I wasn’t good at taking the valuable advice. The reason was – life, of course.
In the past twenty-five years, I’ve had four children and many interesting jobs. I made a commitment to writing in my early forties: it was the right time for me, and when I did, things fell into place. I’d lived a good life, so it was easier for me to see rejection as not as important as the real things happening around me. It wasn’t life and death. I thought of getting published as like playing a game that would benefit the whole family. I also had the maturity to take advice and follow through on the hard work that each creative piece needed.
I think my biggest frustration has been my own constant undermining of my self-belief. You have to be slightly psychopathic to become a writer: it’s like any business, actually. To be successful, you have to have tunnel vision – but as this is totally irrational because you’re focusing all this energy on yourself, you end up questioning your own sanity!
You’re active on social media. Do you think this is important for writers today? Would you encourage aspiring novelists to make use of it?
I think it’s a huge waste of your energy if you haven’t got a good product to sell in the first place. Of course it’s a brilliant way to market your work and it certainly has democratised culture, and undermines the big corporations who used to dictate to us what we should like and dislike. BUT – write a great book first. This takes time and work – hard, concentrated, lonely work. Write the good book first – no distractions. That’s what will get you noticed.
Are you working on any new writing projects at present?
Yes – I’m rewriting a novel, which is going well, now I know what I’m doing and also, now I’m in a better frame of mind.
What advice would you give for inspiring novelists?
Treat writing as a job. It is the hardest job you’ll do – you’re your own boss, and everything you produce is you. Learn to throw out what isn’t good. Editing is the most important part of the process. And above all - read. Be in the world of words when you wake till the moment the book drops from your hand as you dose off. Reading is everything.