Last week, the Indie Publishing Experiment reached its long-awaited climax with the publication of ‘To You the Stars’ by Wendy Cartwright, now available via Amazon. Wendy and I finally had the chance to sit down together and talk about the whole process…
Jan: Can you explain how you came to write what is in fact, a very unusual book?
Wendy: That’s quite hard to explain! TO YOU THE STARS is an unconventional love story based on an experience I had when I researched the grave of a woman buried in my local churchyard at a time when my own life was under an awful lot of stress. So I decided to research her life as a way of distracting myself from my own problems, and because I’m an historian and an enthusiastic amateur astrologer I decided to write about it as an experiment, monitoring events through Astrology and seeing where it took me. I ended up with a novel.
Jan: Did you have a particular reader in mind while you were writing?
Wendy: No, I didn’t have anyone in mind when I wrote, but I would imagine that women would probably enjoy it more than men. It about relationships, and about love, and has a spiritual theme so it’s likely to be of interest to open-minded people. More women are interested in Astrology than men, but then again, a few men have read it and have said they really enjoyed it.
Jan: Would you say that Astrology is at the heart of the book or just an element?
Wendy: It’s at the heart of it. I remember my partner telling me when I was writing it, that I should let Astrology drive the plot. So I decided that each chapter would be written according to the nature of one of the planets before I wrote it. That was my structure. I entered into the spirit of it with a completely open mind. I was like the Fool in the Tarot Deck, I wanted to leap off the cliff, which is what I did.
Jan: Do you think the book could appeal to readers who know nothing about astrology or are indeed sceptical about it?
Wendy: Yes, because I didn’t write it with the aim of persuading people about the validity of Astrology. I’d like to think that it’s just a damn good story, and that the Astrology isn’t overdone. Several people who have read it have said they feel it’s at the right level, and they’ve not been into Astrology themselves.
Jan: And the Philosopher character offers an antidote to the astrology because he’s constantly questioning it.
Wendy: That’s right. He’s based on my late partner. He was a Sceptic, David Hulme was his hero, he was quite interested in my Astrology as long as it wasn’t something I “believed in” and in the novel the Philosopher provides an alternative viewpoint to the narrator.
Jan: Out of which we get a lot of humour.
Wendy: Yes, we used to argue for hours, until four o’clock in the morning. He found it all wryly amusing.
Jan: Obviously, the novel is semi-autobiographical. How hard is it to know where to draw the line between the truth and fiction?
Wendy: Very difficult. For a start I didn’t want to upset people that might read it who are still alive. I let the Astrology provide the boundaries – it’s a Saturn thing. The context is autobiographical – I was living in Oxford as a single mother bringing up a child, teaching part time, practising Astrology and in a relationship with a university Philosopher. That was the context in which I researched Dorothy Browning’s life. But then I allowed the planets to take me on a fun journey. I said, okay, now I’m going to write a chapter entitled Neptune and I just entered into the spirit of Neptune to write it. So of course that’s then fictionalised. But the event in each chapter (in the case of Neptune, the dream), that happened at that particular time and the corresponding astrological chart is available for those who are interested.
Jan: And the charts, which you’ve painted beautifully, are on the TO YOU THE STARS website for anyone who wants to go further down the astrological route.
Wendy: Yes, we thought it was better to do that, rather than put them in the book itself.
Jan: There are some very sad events in the book and I know that some of them are based on real experiences. How did you manage dealing with those experiences fictionally when writing?
Wendy: I’ve always been quite an emotional person anyway, so if I felt inspired to write something, I just wrote it. And I cried a bit. But that was good. I know some people would say that’s writing for therapy, but I don’t think it was in my case. I was dealing with universal human experiences, particularly loss and grief, and these aren’t things that only apply to me. Several people who’ve read the book have found it moving. Well that’s because I’m the same as them – we’ve all get Neptune in us somewhere.
Jan: So would you recommend the life-writing experience to other writers?
Wendy: Oh definitely. If I’d just been writing it to get it out of my system, it wouldn’t have been relevant to other people. I could write my journal for example, that’s just for me; that is therapeutic writing. But if you’re writing a story based on something that happened to you then you’re trusting in the god of storytelling, Mercury. And you believe there’s a bigger purpose – it’s not just about you.
Jan: You’ve been on a couple of writing courses. How useful were they in writing this book?
Wendy: I found the courses useful but they didn’t make much of an impact on writing this novel because I’d already written the first draft. The courses were really interesting and informative, I learned a lot about the publishing world and techniques of writing, which might influence something I write in future. If I were to write a more conventional novel, that is.
Jan: So the courses didn’t have any impact on the second, third, fourth drafts?
Wendy: Not really, it was too late by then. The greatest benefit was working together on the editorial process before publishing.
Jan: Can you talk a bit more about this? It seemed to me to go very smoothly, but were there times when you felt protective and possessive about what you’d written?
Wendy: Definitely. But this is where having somebody else read your work is so useful, because I’d become attached to particular phrases that I liked and I didn’t want to let them go. In particular in the Moon chapter, there were little scenes in that that were part of my memory (which is interesting because the Moon rules Memory), but I followed your advice as my Editor and re-wrote. From the reader’s point of view it makes a lot more sense now, but it wasn’t easy. It was interesting for me to note that because I’d structured the novel according the planets, the chapters that were most difficult to write are also planets that are not well dignified in my own birth chart. For example, I’ve got a problematic Moon in my own birth chart and that’s the chapter I ended up having to do the most work on. Whereas the Sun, which is the strongest planet in my chart, in Aries conjunct the Mid-Heaven, I wrote in one go and had to do very little work on.
Jan: In fact, a lot of the changes you made were related to the experience of the reader, pulling them into the story and enabling them to follow it more easily.
Wendy: When I was writing, it was very much stream of consciousness because I was going with the flow of the planets. I took that as my central premise, so this is Mars, events corresponding with the nature of Mars will be in this chapter and I’m going to enter into the Mars feeling, even in my prose, which is all very well for me, having fun writing it, but for someone reading it, there were moments that were confusing. I needed an Editor to say look, I’ve no idea where we are here. I was encouraged to do a lot of what you called ‘pinning’ – establishing time and space, or reminding the reader who minor characters were, or explaining a time lapse, that kind of thing. The book was being ‘earthed’. By a Virgo!
Jan: The novel is very short, somewhere between a novella and a novel. Why did it turn out this way and do you think it will be a problem for readers? It certainly is for traditional publishers!
Wendy: When I was young and started out writing, I wrote poetry. Then I wrote short stories, some of which were published. It just feels natural to me, to condense things. Without wanting to sound pretentious, TO YOU THE STARS is more like a very long poem. It was never going to be a long novel. I wrote the first draft of each chapter in one sitting, according to the nature of that planet, and I ended up with just over fifty thousand words. I can’t imagine ever being able to write a long novel.
Jan: It sounds like you didn’t do very much planning before you started writing. How aware were you of plot structure, character arcs, that kind of thing?
Wendy: Not aware at all! Because the book was an experiment. I’m an Aries with Leo ascendant, so I don’t do a lot of planning.
Jan: Why did you decide to go straight to indie publishing rather than approach agents or traditional publishers?
Wendy: Actually, I did approach one publisher many years ago with an early draft, and he told me that the relationships with the Philosopher wasn’t properly resolved, and I thought well, fair enough, I’m never going to resolve that one (!). I put the novel in the cupboard under the stairs. Then a friend of mine died quite recently which made me start thinking of my own legacy, as it does, and I thought, I wish I’d made more of an effort with TO YOU THE STARS, which was originally called ‘Dorothy’s Grave’. I chatted to you about it and you said, why don’t you get it out and have another go? I always knew that it wouldn’t fit in anywhere because it’s not a conventional novel. It’s also not an astrology text book. Neither is it high-brow literature, although I hope it’s well written. I just couldn’t think of a market for it and when I get stuck, I tend not to bother, I tend to do just some knitting. But there are new ways to get novels out to readers these days. It was you that encouraged me and said, it needs to be read. I always remember my partner saying, “This is not just for you, you know.” And I thought, actually he was right.
Jan: So now that it’s finally come out of the cupboard under the stairs and is seeing the light of day, has this given you a fresh impetus for more writing, and if so, what other plans have you got?
Wendy: I feel that TO YOU THE STARS was very much a fated thing that I had to do, and I would never be able to write anything like that again. But I would like to write something else. I’ve got a few ideas for short novels using Astrology in some way that are pure fiction. It would be nice to do something where I just use my own imagination. If I can.
Jan: And I would love you to write more comedy. Because although parts of TO YOU THE STARS are very sad, a lot of it is very funny.
Wendy. I would love to write a comedy – absolutely. One of the great things about TO YOU THE STARS is that I had a lot of laughs while I was writing it, especially in the Mercury chapter: Mercury is the Joker in the pack. I’d like to write idiosyncratic comedy because that’s my voice. Come to think of it, I found my voice while writing TO YOU THE STARS.
Jan: Which is a great thing to discover… So what are your hopes for the books now it’s being published?
Wendy: I would like it to be read by the people who need to read it and I hope they get something out of it. After I wrote my initial draft I tape-recorded it and played it to an old blind lady I used to visit and she really loved it. She got a nice read before she died and that meant a lot to me. A friend once said to me, “Put it on the water, like Moses in the bulrushes and see who picks it up.” That’s my attitude to it.
Jan: Hopefully lots of people will find it and I’m sure they will enjoy it enormously and get a tremendous amount from it.
Wendy: Thanks. Yes, I hope so…. Do you mind if I go out for a cigarette now?