Author and English teacher Charis Wightman (Manchester Writing School) recently published her first novel, The Girl from Saikea on Amazon. The story deals with sensitive themes like totalitarianism, politics, and human rights. Protagonist Mai’s struggle for freedom and a sense of identity outside the confines of Saikea (her home country ruled with an iron grip) reflects ever-present problems in the real world. International human rights abuses in countries like China and North Korea, fabricated or not, continue to stoke the fires of controversy and debate.
Worthy, lofty themes on which to write a novel, but, rather than wax philosophical, the author sticks close to Mai’s experience, outlining to the reader her thoughts and struggles. The Girl from Saikea is a timeless tale suitable for young and old readers. Today, Charis talks about her book, how teaching and writing influence each other, and how to hone your craft as a writer.
Tell us about your new book ‘The Girl from Saikea’…
It’s about a girl called Mai who, from the age of five, is forced to train as a gymnast in a concentration camp in a totalitarian country, Saikea, and the abuse and fear she and her fellow gymnasts suffer through their lives there. It seems a futile endeavour as their despot leader initially refuses to let the girls compete outside of their country, until one day he has a change of heart and allows a select few of them to leave. This is when everything changes for the girls. Friends become rivals as each one is desperate to see the outside world, even if it’s only for a week or so. The United Empires is the total opposite of Saikea and the things the girls see and experience there are in such contrast to their lives back home, it’s almost too much for them to comprehend. There’s romance and intrigue and discovery. It’s the first of a trilogy so the story doesn’t end here.
How does teaching children inform your writing? Does it inspire you?
Oh yes. Teaching totally inspires me. It gives me daily opportunities to talk about authors’ choices and analyse why they’ve made that language choice or structured their sentences in that particular way and how they’ve created suspense or a mood. In that way my teaching holds me to high standards because I’ve got to write what I teach!
Which writers have had the greatest impact on your work?
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy was my biggest inspiration and influence whilst writing The Girl from Saikea. The idea of adults brutalising children and entire communities is one I return to frequently. I’ve read Collins’ series time and time again. Not only is the concept brilliant, I also paid close attention to how she creates suspense and drama in her plots. Livi Michael is an author I greatly admire too. She has written books for every age group from six years old to fully fledged grown-ups and she has mastered adapting her ‘voice’ for each genre she writes for. I am amazed every time I read one of her many novels and wish I could figure out exactly how she does it!
Tell us about your future writing plans…
Well, the second book in the series is underway and the third is pretty much planned. I say pretty much because when I was writing The Girl from Saikea, I planned it, started writing it, and every now and then I’d realise that a character had reached somewhere I hadn’t thought about, and once there, they’d heard or seen something that I hadn’t considered. This changed the direction of the scene and impacted the progression of the plot. So for me, at least, it’s essential to have a plan for reference. But it’s still OK to deviate when I discover something new about my characters. (I love it when that happens!)
What are your greatest struggles as a writer?
Finding my ‘voice’ was probably my biggest challenge. I had a few false starts where I wasn’t close enough to my main character but my sentence structure and plot needed me to be. Other things I write sometimes have a very different viewpoint so I think settling down to one for whatever I’m writing is my biggest struggle. (That and trusting that what I’ve written is in any way good once I read it back.)
It’s a craft, after all, a thing that needs to be studied and practiced. Also, you need to dismiss everything about how you teach children to write for a one off, half hour piece of writing! Too many adverbs/adjectives/literary devices and interesting sentence openers will stunt a novel because that’s not how most main characters talk or see things.
Written by Michael Conroy and Charis Wightman.
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