July 1, 2013

Interview with author Sandi Russell

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

Sandi RussellHarlem-born jazz singer and writer Sandi Russell talks about her novel, COLOR, published this month


1.     What was the inspiration behind COLOR?

When my parents retired, they moved from New York City to the area near Jamestown, Virginia, where my mother’s people had been living since before the arrival of the English settlers in the 17th Century. That area surrounding Jamestown had a strange effect on my psyche, every time I visited there from my early 20’s until my late 40’s. There was so much history; so much that could be felt coming from this land and from some of the stories of my people that I was compelled to write about it. Doing research about the area and its inhabitants only confirmed this. I also realised that nothing at all had been written about the subject of African-American Native-American exchange.

     2.     When and where did you begin writing?

I began writing when I was very, very young. I loved reading and writing and when I was about 10 years old, I had a story published in the school newspaper. Then, when I was in High School, I won the creative writing contest of New York State, which was announced in The Daily News (a popular New York City newspaper). I promptly erased it from my memory, as everyone expected me to be a singer (my parents hoped for a classical career). Since I had seen many examples of black women singers (both classical and jazz and had heard them a great deal, as well), I thought this was a clear way forward. But my parents did not want me to take the popular or jazz route, having concerns about the lifestyle. So, I pursued the career that was expected and assiduously suppressed any desire to write, until a few years before coming to the UK, approximately 30 years ago.

     3.     Can you say something about your writing process for COLOR?

 COLOR started out as a very different book from the one that finally emerged. It was initially conceived as half poetry and half prose. It was shaped along the African-American tradition of ‘Call and Response’, somewhat like the experience one has in a black Baptist Church between the preacher stating a theme and the congregation responding. The poetry posed historical themes (17th, 18th and 19th centuries), in the voices of those who had no voice (Native-Americans and black slaves) and the prose was a response from their descendants in the 20th century. Sadly, I was told it was too rich, too poetic and did not fit any of the marketable categories. The process of changing that form into a relatively straightforward narrative seemed impossible, but through much trial and error and a considerable number of drafts, I got there. Part of the process meant taking much of the poetry out and placing the historical material in a character’s speech. Many of the ‘responses’ remain intact as monologues, so I suppose COLOR will never totally be what most people would expect from a linear novel.

      4.     This must have posed considerable formal and technical challenges. How did you solve these?

As I have stated in my previous answer, the form of COLOR changed considerably. And yes, it was a huge technical challenge, as I had to take poetry and put it into the mouth of a character and make it sound believable. I did this by creating a character, Henrietta, to carry this theme. Because she is supposedly ‘crazy’, her language lends itself to something new and different. Consequently, she tells this history with a very unique voice, having an honesty that is often found in those with troubled spirits. Also, setting up a scene where you segue into a monologue was daunting, but I just had to work very hard to envision a scene where someone speaking directly to the reader was believable.

      5.     At what point do you allow others to look at your work? How important is feedback to you as a writer?

 Usually I don’t let others look at my work until I feel I have come to some natural stopping place or when a particular section  ‘feels’ right, and has a sense of completion. As far as feedback is concerned, it is very important to me to have a few people, whom I know will understand and respect my work and will give an honest opinion of it. (This does not necessarily mean that their views will always be agreed with or acted upon.)

     6.     You’ve co-edited the Virago book of Love Poems by Women, and you are author of the acclaimed Render Me My Song which looks at African-American women’s writing from slavery to the present. What writers did you have in mind, if any, as you wrote COLOR?

I really had no particular writer in mind when I wrote COLOR, but I could feel Toni Morrison sitting on my shoulder a great deal of the time! There are a few writers who have influenced my writing to some degree, though; Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer, for example. I mention them, as their works are mixed texts. By this I mean that they use songs, speech, poetry, and stories, all within the novel. So COLOR comes from a very different tradition than a European one. Even with these influences, I’ve worked hard to develop my own ‘voice’.

     7.     You are known primarily as a jazz singer. How does singing feed into your writing?

 Music is a major influence in my writing. To be more specific, jazz is the influence. Everything I write, I read out loud. If it has no pulse, no rhythm, no underlying propulsion, then it doesn’t work for me. I also try to impart a feeling of improvisation in my writing, as it is not only an integral part of jazz but has informed and continues to inform the lives of black people. I read a few excerpts at a launch recently and the musicality in my work was commented upon. I was jubilant that it was ‘heard’.

     8.     What hopes do you have for COLOR?

My deepest hope for COLOR is that it is read widely, by those who know about this culture and history, as well as those who know little and want to know more. I want to pose questions to all of us about how we live and interact with each other in the 21st century and how history can help us to confront ongoing difficulties and issues with compassion and understanding. I hope COLOR opens up these questions and that they can finally be looked at honestly, dealt with intelligently and move us forward into a better world.

Visit Sandi Russell’s website here

To buy a copy of COLOR click here


August 1, 2012

What writers can learn from the Olympic games

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:00 pm by Susan

Despite all I feel about the cost of hosting the Olympic games in London this summer (siphoning funds that could, in my view, have been put to much better use), I have to confess to finding the dawn-to-dusk media coverage not only impossible to boycott, but also on occasion compelling.

For example, women’s archery. Amazon-like contestants raise their bows, release the arrow, and there it is piercing the small gold ring at the centre of the target.

Except that sometimes, it misses. One archer I watched produced three perfect shots, then, on her next turn, fired three that were so wide of the mark they scarcely added to her score.

I suspected this was what archery is like, even at the highest, Olympic level. Some you win, some you don’t. But the commentators had a different explanation, which made me think about writing.

The contestant, the commentators said, had lost not only her focus but her nerve, and it was this that caused the arrow to land wide.

It was a theme I heard many times during the course of the London Olympics. It was footballer Aaron Ramsey’s hesitation as he took his second  penalty shoot-out against South Korea that ended Britain’s hope of a place in the final. Conversely, taekwondo fighter Jade Jones’ ‘bonkers’ gold medal win was the result of a sudden surge in confidence. No one doubts the reason Team GB did so spectacularly well at their home games was down to the belief and support of the crowd.

In many ways, writers are luckier than Olympic contestants. What we do does not depend on a few minutes’ trial in circumstances which may not be ideal (Ramsey had a long wait before that crucial second penalty, and all the archers I watched struggled with a breeze). If words don’t fire well on a particular day, we can always come back the next and try again.

And yet. There is a depressing statistic: thousands of novels are started each year but only a small percentage are ever completed. While some of these will remain unfinished for good reason, I suspect many potentially fine novels are abandoned from lack of confidence. It is all too easy, when writing, to let doubts pull us off course: do my words have the  grace and precision of an arrow? Will they reach a reader? What will that reader think of me if I miss?

Completing a novel depends on three things. The first is action. Nothing will get written if space is not cleared so that words can be set down each day. The second is persistence. It isn’t enough to write on Monday when hopes and energy are high, the process has to be repeated each day of the week over months and probably years.

The third element is confidence. As all Olympians know, believing you can do something is perhaps the single most important ingredient in striking gold.

I wonder what insights the London Paralympics, just starting, will give…

June 1, 2011

How to write well

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

This month I contributed a short article to one of the Arvon Writing Guides. Here, ahead of publication, are my top tips for writing. They are compiled from years of trial and error.

I’d love to hear yours…. Do leave a comment in the box below.

Never wait for inspiration.

This may come – but it will have more chance of doing so if you are already among words.

Work out when, where and how you do your best work.

The venue might be a library, a café, on a train, in bed. You might work best first thing in the morning while your mind is still wide open, or last thing at night once the day’s other tasks are done. Some writers like silence, others can only function against background noise. Experiment to see if deadlines are productive spurs or thought-crippling terrors. Do not rule out the possibility that each stage of writing (research, planning, drafting, editing) might require a different context.

Do your groundwork.

Even though you will not use all your research, the fact that you know the full picture and can select the most pertinent aspects will make your piece stronger.

Be clear about your brief.

The kind of writing you do for a scholarly journal destined for experts will be different to a piece intended for general readers. Make sure you know whom you are writing to. Give thought to their needs.

The value of planning.

A plan can be a time-saver and give your piece a more coherent structure, but bear in mind that writing is itself a way of thinking. If drafting generates important insights, don’t be afraid to modify or discard your plan. A post-plan can be useful for checking that all the necessary elements are in place and everything coheres.

Murder your internal censor.

This is crucial. Give yourself permission to experiment, explore, write rubbish. It might lead to something fresh and unexpected. You can always edit later.

Keep the writing muscle in shape.

Other artists (musicians, dancers) practice regularly. Even on days when there is no time for concentrated work, keep an actual or virtual notebook to hand.


Think about how you can best communicate with your reader. Does the piece require you to lay out all the information in the clearest manner possible, or would it be more effective if you provided an individual case study? Does the reader need facts and figures, or a scenario that will bring the situation to life? Should you list bullet points? Or tell a story?

Don’t be easily satisfied.

Good writing rarely comes ready-formed. Expect to go through many drafts.

Use your senses.

We are sensate as well as intellectual and emotional beings. Don’t just tell the reader – where appropriate, help them see, feel, hear, smell, taste.

Take regular breaks.

Words and ideas take time to ferment and mature. Leaving a piece alone for an hour or a day is part of the process. If you are writing to a deadline, factor this in to your schedule.

Do something else.

Sometimes the best angle/example/phrase surfaces when we least expect it. Harness the Eureka moment by stopping work and doing something different.

Remain open.

When your writing is as finished as you can make it, give it to readers you respect and trust. Have the courage to hear what they say: the good as well as the bad.

Feed your muse.

The more you read, the better you will write.

October 9, 2010

Displacement before writing

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , at 10:45 am by Susan

Why is it so difficult to start a piece of writing? This week I cleared space to begin working on a new novel but for some reason I have managed to fritter away the time, persuading myself that I really should send  that reference/keep on top of my inbox/clean out the fridge/take that picture I’ve had since Christmas to the framer.

It isn’t fear of the blank page that’s stopping me. I have my characters, the setting, I even know some of the things that are going to happen in my story. I am eager to fill in the gaps. But for some reason I keep putting off the start.

Writing a novel is often compared to a journey, full of lows as well as highs, and some of my prevarication is perhaps analogous to what I imagine a long-distance swimmer might feel before diving in. Part of me longs to be in the water again, while another part is reluctant to leave dry land. It’s a question of preparedness too – to write you have to accept that for months to come you won’t be available to attend to all life’s details and that some things, frankly, will slip by the way. At least some of the postponement is practical. References do after all have to be sent, fridges cleaned.

I’ve just looked up the word displacement in the dictionary. One of its meanings is ‘the transfer of emotion to a less threatening source’. This is helpful. There is a fear of failure in delaying writing. While my new novel exists only in my head, it is possible it will convey more exactly than my last one that shadowy but compelling vision I  can see bobbing somewhere far ahead of me.

And towards which I know I must swim.

To share your displacement stories, please leave a comment

September 30, 2009


Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , at 2:22 pm by Susan


Earlier this month I visited the Gobelins in Paris, where tapestries and carpets are still made by hand using techniques that have hardly changed over centuries. After the history-for-tourists preamble by our guide we were taken on a tour of the workshops. There was something mesmeric about the row of weavers working with only the simplest of tools: a shuttle to pass the thread back and forth, a comb to press the threads flat, a pair of scissors. One of their more surprising tools was a mirror. The tapestries are woven back to front and the mirrors are inserted under the frame so the weaver can see the image they are creating.

Another surprise was the contemporary design of the tapestries and carpets. The Gobelins do not replicate historical artefacts but produce new work based on pictures and photographs by contemporary artists. The resultant pieces are extraordinary: richly textured, they arrest the eye. Some use hundreds of colours. I saw one weaver working on a detail using perhaps a dozen different shades of purple – every possible variation from aubergine to plum. Nothing made at the Gobelins is for sale. Once the tapestries and carpets are finished they are taken to a central store, where they wait to be assigned to a public building.

Watching the weavers clock-off at 4.30 – they weave in natural light if at all possible – made me think about the rhythm of their work. Our guide had told us that in the case of complex designs a skilled weaver might only produce a few centimetres a day – a statistic I find profoundly reassuring when I compare it to my own efforts to inch my current novel forwards. Perhaps if – like the weavers – I keep weaving away at my words, the moment will come when I’ll turn the whole thing over and a marvellous picture will emerge.

June 28, 2009

Public and private

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , at 4:17 pm by Susan


This month took me to New York for the US launch of Vanessa and Virginia. While I was there I contributed to a round table discussion about Virginia Woolf. The other panelists included Ruth Gruber, who wrote the first Ph. D. on Virginia Woolf in the 1930s. Ruth (now 97) described tea with Virginia and Leonard Woolf in their London home one afternoon in October 1935.

Virginia, she told us, was lying on a sofa, wearing a soft grey dress, and smoking a cigarette. Her hair was cut short in a bob. She said little as Leonard attended to the courtesies of pouring and passing tea, only becoming involved in the conversation when Ruth recounted a recent visit to Germany. The tea ended civilly, and was followed by a brief – and polite – exchange of letters.

Years later, Ruth read an account of herself in Virginia Woolf’s published correspondence, a puzzling, unflattering report, which did not correspond to her memory of their meeting, or the tone of the letters they exchanged. I think everyone listening to Ruth felt outraged on her behalf at this apparent betrayal.

Most of us won’t ever see our private thoughts published. If we did, we might have to reflect further on the disjunction between what we say and do in public, and the way we behave when the world isn’t looking. We like to assume we are straightforward, uncomplicated beings who rarely change our minds or contradict ourselves, yet a moment’s honest self-scrutiny reveals just the opposite.

Woolf herself was aware of the dichotomy. ‘We’re splinters & mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes’, she wrote in her diary. She went on to imagine a form of writing that might encompass these ‘human dimensions’.

Perhaps, if we had more of the kind of writing Woolf envisaged, instead of the self-congratulatory memoirs tending to fill bookstores today, we might find it easier to accept that our icons also have feet of clay.