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Once your writing dream becomes a day-job, it's not a dream anymore

IF you really want to be a writer, you need to let go, find your humor, forget what others think and don't show drafts to family and friends. That's what Marina Lewycka tells Sam Riley of her 40-year struggle to get published

After almost 40 years of trying, author Marina Lewycka finally got her first novel published. The British author will open Shanghai's literary festival today by sharing with other aspiring authors her tips for getting into print.

Lewycka is the daughter of Ukrainian parents who emigrated to Britain.

Her parents had been taken to Germany as forced laborers by the Nazis and she was born in a British-run refugee camp in Germany in 1946.

It was only after 36 rejection letters for her previous works, including two novels, poetry and short stories, that an examiner at a writing course noticed her manuscript for her first novel, "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian."

"Tractors" (2005) draws heavily on her family's immigrant experience in Britain and their conflicts and challenges.

The novel's quirky, sometimes poignant sense of humor charmed readers and it sold more than 1 million copies and has been translated into 30 languages.

Her second novel "Two Caravans" was shortlisted for the George Orwell prize for political writing and is the story of migrant strawberry farm workers from three continents who travel across Britain.

Lewycka is working on her third novel, "We Are All Made of Glue." She shares with Shanghai Daily some advice for aspiring writers and how life changed after she became a bestselling author at age 58.

Q: You struggled for nearly 40 years to be published. What made you pursue your dream?

A: If you want to be a published writer (unless you are a celebrity writing your memoirs), you have to be ready to persist in the face of rejection. Or maybe you just have to be slightly mad.

Q: How would you advise writers tapping away on their computers or scribbling in their notebooks?

A: Many people °?- myself included - scribble away in private, because revealing your secret thoughts and not-fully-developed talent to a cynical world is embarrassing. However friends and family are useless as critics °?- they will always say it's wonderful, either because they think everything you do is wonderful, or because they love you, and want to spare your feelings.

So the protective environment of a writing course is a good place to start showing other people your work. You can also learn a lot from reading other people's efforts; you may privately think that Ms X's story is a load of semi-pornographic drivel, but of course you won't say that - you'll find a constructive way of voicing your criticism. And there will be a lesson in there somewhere for you.

Q: You have spoken about unlocking your sense of humor, a key element in "Tractors." How did you do it?

A: I think the key to unlocking my sense of humor was growing older. I'd reached that stage in my life - mid fifties - when you start looking back on your life and you realize it wasn't so bad. You made friends, you did some good, you had some laughs, and you survived. I always wondered why old people seemed so jolly, despite compelling evidence that growing old isn't a bundle of fun. Now I know.

Once you pass a certain stage, you stop worrying what anyone thinks of you. It's immensely liberating. I couldn't have written "Tractors" if I'd always been looking over my shoulder wondering what people would think.

Q: How can aspiring authors find their "voice"?

A: I think, in a way, the answer is the same as finding your sense of humor. It's about letting go, not worrying what people think about you, and being willing to try different things out. When I wrote my earlier book - the one that was rejected 36 times - I was very concerned about trying to sound like an "author." By the time I got on to "Tractors," I'd given up on that - I just wanted to entertain myself and my friends.

Q: Much of your first novel is based on your family's history and experiences. What are some of the pitfalls and challenges of melding fiction and the family?

A: Well, being friendly with or related to an author is a terrible hazard, because inevitably bits of you are going to migrate into their novels - and inevitably they're the bits that you don't want anyone else to know about. That's what makes them such compelling story material. I would hate it if it happened to me.

Q: How does being a published author change your life and the creative process?

A: Well, of course it's wonderful to achieve your dreams, and I wouldn't advise anyone to give up dreaming. But once your dream becomes your day-job, it's not a dream anymore. Although it's a wonderful job to have, and the perks are brilliant, there are downsides, too.

It can be very lonely. You spend hours on your own writing. And now you find that writing books is just a small part of the writer's job, and you also have to spend hours traveling around on your own, giving talks and readings, signing books and answering questions - when you'd much rather be writing. You don't have colleagues or an office to go to, or people to gossip with.

It's hard to find the right balance between writing, which is a very solitary activity, and these mad bursts of traveling and meeting people, which are quite lonely in a different way. Of course sometimes it's wonderful, because you get to come to great places like Shanghai - but it could just as easily be a public library in Grimethorpe on a wet weekday afternoon. But I can't complain - those wet weekday audiences in small towns are sometimes the most appreciative, and ask the most interesting questions.


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