Writer-to-Writer: Karin Salvalaggio & Fiona Melrose

Writers Life Support Systems 101: Facebook Messaging
An author needs more than book deals and good reviews to stay the course. Whether it be a shattered ego or hard drive, it is essential to have friends who will be there to help pick up the pieces. It’s a bonus if they understand the unique challenges that writers face and know to never question the craziness, the strange hours and the tendency to talk to oneself. Fiona Melrose and Karin Salvalaggio have a friendship that crosses continents and genres. Since they met in 2010 they’ve written six books between them and exchanged nearly 80,000 messages on Facebook. This is their writing life support system. The Internet goes down and they go down with it.

The Meet Cute

Karin Salvalaggio

Karin Salvalaggio

Karin With Fiona it was definitely a case of ‘love at first write’. We’d both enrolled in Birkbeck’s MA in Creative Writing and were lucky to have landed in the same class. Initially I found Fiona to be incredibly intimidating. To put it bluntly she knew her literary shit. While I based my reaction to a piece of literature on my instincts, she had the vocabulary to articulate her ideas succinctly. The more she talked the more I listened. She was the one who made me realize that if I was going to get anywhere I was going to have to up my game. I was doubly impressed when we work-shopped her first story. She could write passages that conjured up a sense of place as well as anyone. The first piece was set in South Africa. A woman, who has returned to ancestral home following the death her mother, finds herself under siege when local tribesman have come to claim land that is rightfully theirs. I was transfixed from the opening paragraph.

Fiona Melrose

Fiona Melrose

Fiona – That is sweet of Karin to say but it was I who was impressed by her. She read a section of her story out to the class and I can still remember the image that made me sit up. She was describing some forlorn middle America town and described its skyline as looking as if it had had a tooth knocked out after tornado had gone through a few years earlier. A tooth knocked out. I was instantly annoyed that I would never be able to write a sentence like that and decided to make friends with this prodigious talent, if only to mine her for information. She also had a hungry, slightly obsessive look about her that I related to. At the student bar (£1.50 for a pint of warm cider in a plastic cup) that night or soon thereafter we decided between us that failure was not an option. We would write and write and write until we learned enough to get published. We are both extremely stubborn and bloody-minded. It has proven to been good strategy.

Long Distance Relationships Can Work
Karin Fiona and I have always relied on the Internet to communicate so our routine changed very little when she moved to South Africa nearly three years ago. Our daily Facebook chats continue to play a vital role in our writing life. I think the friendship has endured because we met at the start of our writing careers and over time realized that we share many of the same goals and have similar work ethics. In the last five years we’ve gone from being novices to writers with book deals. Those 80,000 messages we’ve shared on Facebook map out the story of that journey. There have many tears along the way but also a great deal of humor, much of it dark. That virtual space we’ve carved out on Facebook is the safest place I know.
Fiona – Karin is my safety net. For both of us, the path to publication was not easy (is it ever?) and there were long periods when one of both of us was in a dark desert with no sense that we would get anywhere and yet we cracked on with writing every day. Perhaps partly because no one wanted to be the one to quit first? Karin signed with an agent long before I did and her third novel has just come out whereas my debut comes out in 2016. She had to “go ahead” and learn things for both of us. I always appreciated her wise words. When I was in a state about something she would always give me a reality check, having fought the same fight herself a year earlier. In Johannesburg I have absolutely no literary community. None. I listen to Radio4 author interview archives when I feel I am losing my way or need inspiration. And so Karin is my library community in Jhb. Checking in with her and chatting about the day’s work or anxieties that I will never ever be good enough (sack cloth/ ashes) and she is the one who is there. She is the perfect balance of ass-whipping, no-nonsense get-over-yourself and patient support. And when things go right and there is good news, no-one, truly no-one, is more effusive and hyperbolic in their joy.

Hwalleye junction cover smallow This Clock Ticks
Karin There are no guidelines for a virtual relationship such as ours. We usually check in two or three times a day depending on our schedules. More often than not there’s a little Corgi Emoji waving up at me from the laptop’s screen and we just start chatting. We’re always polite and give each other space to have their say. If we’re aware that one of us is having a particularly difficult time we make a point of sending little messages of support without asking for anything in return. There might be something distressing to discuss such as a manuscript’s rejection by a publisher, a bad review, lack of readers, tricky finances or our frustration with the world at large but there also may be something to celebrate – a book deal, a great review, an agent who loves us, ditto for an editor. I must hasten to add that it’s not all about work. Fiona and I are incredibly crass at times. We’re just as likely to talk about our last snog as our last paragraph. Anyway, it’s proper girlfriend silliness that easily segues into serious discussions about character arcs, plot structure and finding that perfect, yet elusive, title for our work in progress.
Ci7AYDdXEAACKce.jpg-largeFiona  We check in a few times a day. A French Bulldog emoji, usually clutching a coffee cup is always there to greet me. It is mostly about writing and the world that brings with it but also the world that infringes on that safe place, families, day jobs, life. In general it just flows along and interesting things come up. We do have the same work ethic and that makes it all possible. I couldn’t spend time messaging with a writer who sat around waiting to be inspired and complaining about how hard it is to write. I know Karin is working hard and I respect that so highly in her. Last year we set each other a word count challenge. Karin needed to get on with her (3rd!) novel for her deadline and I was in a state of panic and self-loathing wondering if my novel would find a publisher but had another (3rd) novel I wanted to write. So, a challenge. For 10 weeks I would write 1,000 words a day (as I have a day job) and Karin 2,000. Every Friday we would send a screenshot of how much we had done. Ten weeks later, Karin finished her next book and I have the first draft of Book No 3. While we never take ourselves too seriously, and many of the messages are about teasing each other “How’s that title search coming on?” “You’re not going to win a Booker with that idea.” There is nothing, nothing, nothing we take more seriously than the work.

Crossing Genres
Karin Our friendship transcends genre. I write thrillers and Fiona writes literary fiction. Fiona pushes me to be my best and I believe I do the same for her. At the end of the day I want any reader who picks up my novels to take my writing seriously. There are those in the literary fiction world who look down on genre fiction. Fiona has never made me feel anything less than valid in my choices and I’m incredibly grateful for her support. What a wonderful world it would be if other thriller and literary writers would follow our lead.
Fiona – It has never occurred to me that what Karin writes is different to what I write and we had one conversation (on Messenger of course) where it was clear that my book, but for the lack of a detective’s point of view) had all the elements of a thriller: murder, secrets, small towns, simmering anger etc. But, no detective. That and my slightly languorous tone. So, I have learned SO much about writing from Karin. Pace, tension, mystery, timed release of information; all these things make for wonderful thrillers but are things which I need to learn about too and implement them in a way that feels appropriate to my work. What Karin has taught me is the importance of telling a cracking good story. She is a natural storyteller. Of course I am not sure I have mastered it yet, but it is something I am working on. I have no idea how she holds all the threads and plots in her head. Her work is known for its twists and turns. She can hold the whole shape and knot of the story in her head and see it clearly, something that does not come naturally to me.

To Be Continued
So, here we are 80,000 messages and counting. The importance of friendship in writing has been documented and tends to include famous literary friendships such as Truman Capote and Harper Lee; Toni Morrison and James Baldwin; and Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell. There is such poetry and historical weight to these relationships. Great works, big lives, irreducible legacies. Sometimes though, it comes down to a fat doggie Emoji blowing kisses across the ether at midnight saying, “Just get on with it. It will happen.”

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