Most writers dream of having a novel published; this week’s Clear-Minded Creative Type has achieved that goal and more besides. Now involved in an exciting new international literary project which has strong links to Scotland, Hande Zapsu Watt shares her story so far and how her habits and environment have shaped her life and work.
Please can you describe who you are and what you are up to at the moment?
I’m a writer/editor/translator/teacher/student, so in short, a little all over the place but I guess that’s what happens when you can’t sit still.
I’ll try that again with a little more clarity:
When I wake up, I’m never quite sure who I am. I dream a lot, almost every night, crazy vivid dreams that seem to go on for hours. I see grizzly bears taking over the world, snipers dropping out of the sky, machines looking for lost souls…so it usually takes a wee while to adjust.
After my first cup of coffee, I’m an editor. I edit my own work, other people’s work (sometimes as a favour, sometimes as a job) and recently I have become the editor of The Istanbul Review.
After my second cup of coffee I am a writer. I write paranormal/historical novels using the pen name Mina Hepsen (www.minahepsen.com). Depending on the day and publisher deadlines, I also work on my (I hesitate to use the word ‘literary’ so I’ll say ‘non-genre’) novels.
There is Through the Dust for example, a novel I have been working on for about five years. It’s slow going. It’s not the lack of ideas or direction, but the fact that my main characters are so hopeless, so afraid… in order to write them, I need to put myself in their heads and I can’t keep it up for too long. It makes me mopey and pessimistic (I like to think of myself as an optimist) so I’ve been writing it bit by bit.
After my third cup of coffee I’m a student/tutor. I’m studying Creative Writing (final months of my PhD) at Edinburgh University and I also run English Literature tutorials there. It’s a continuous round of writing the thesis, preparing classes and grading papers. It takes up time but makes for a nice change and gives purpose to cup number three.
Later in the day, after an episode of House or Dexter or True Blood, I am whatever I need to be. Sometimes that means translator: I recently translated a book from Turkish into English called Black Milk* by Elif Shafak (out this April from Penguin). Sometimes that means more editing or writing. And sometimes it means trying hard to do nothing at all.
Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?
No, not at all actually. I always knew I wanted to try and change the world, to help people in some way, but I never imagined myself as a writer.
When I was very young I wanted to be a lawyer. The idea was simple: to save innocent people and make lots of money while doing it which I could then spend on charities. I soon fell out of love with that idea.
The desire to be a doctor hit me next. I was 14 and spending my weekends working as a volunteer at a hospital in Istanbul. It was going really well, I was imagining a future filled with saving lives. And then one day I was waiting for a lift next to a young girl in a wheel chair. It was obvious she was a cancer patient and not doing well. Her hands were pale and limp. She had lost all her hair. It took me a moment to notice that her oxygen tube had fallen away from her nose. She couldn’t breathe, but she wasn’t struggling. There was no panic in her eyes, only a plea. She didn’t want me to help her. I called out to her attendant who was gossiping with the guy behind the information desk. That was when the doctor dream ended.
I toyed with the idea of being a biologist next. The Human Genome Project wasn’t complete yet, and genetics looked like it could produce cures for the suffering. The summer I turned 16, I was at Smith College studying science, working on dissection skills and DNA gels. The next summer I was back to medicine, but this time it was psychology. A few months working at a mental institution cured me of that notion and fast.
Finally I decided politics was the way forward. If I couldn’t keep innocents out of jail, if I couldn’t cure their cancer or fix their mental states then I could work on world peace (surely that was a cure to all of the above?). I studied Political Science and Philosophy at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
I’ve already carried on quite a bit, so I won’t get into my forays into the realm of politics. Safe to say I got a good look, saw a lot of grey and decided it was not for me. Then through some luck and a lost bet, I got a letter from a publisher saying they wanted to buy my book. I had been writing since before the first career dream; poems, stories and finally a novel written during Ancient Russian History and Politics in Modern Japan classes. I loved doing it, but I had never seen it as a career possibility. I was too realistic for that.
So much for realism. I’ve published four novels and two children’s books since.
Have you organised your life in a certain way/made sacrifices in order to continue to be creative?
I think I touched on the ‘organized your life’ bit with the answer to your first question. I’m not kidding about the cups of coffee. I find I can’t write well if I fall out of routine, so I try to stick to it as strictly as possible.
There are, of course, grieving periods. Those days following the end of a novel after the elation has dimmed at having produced something complete. The world feels wrong during those days. I like to travel if I can, to exchange ‘wrong’ for ‘new’.
How do you define success?
Giving love, being loved and doing what I love. If I have all three and am managing to survive, I’ve succeeded.
What in your opinion are the positives and negatives of technology when it comes to both creating and promoting your work?
Technology is both brilliant and utterly frustrating. It is absolutely brilliant in terms of having knowledge at your fingertips. I recently had to describe dead bodies being pulled out of a river and had no clue how to do it. Would they be blue, black, bloated, rotten…what would happen to the eyes, the mouth, the hair? I keep lots of text books at home for research, but some things are just not covered in basic Anatomy books. Online, I can find the information I need in minutes…it’s all there.
Technology is also great to connect with readers. I love the letters I get through my website, love to browse pages where people I’ve never met are discussing characters I made up. I even like reading criticisms, if it’s not just a random rant they can be very useful to take things on board, to see your own flaws.
But the internet can also make things a little difficult. More and more, publishers rely on e-books and online selling which means they can spend less money on print runs, and very little money promoting your work. You need to promote yourself online, to stand out somehow amidst the millions of texts available. You need a website, a blog, a Facebook page…you need to tweet. And if you don’t, well you might be lucky and reach the readers anyway.
Maybe your publisher will spend the cash and rent one of those neat window spots for your book in Waterstones, or maybe you’ll get a fabulous review and people will flock to the stores making Blackwell’s want to order a whole load of copies. But in general it’s hard to stand out without jumping on the technology wagon. And jumping on that wagon means Time.
For me it also means frustration. I love writing back to emails, but tweeting? I’m terrible at it. I can’t fit any of my thoughts into that word limit so I end up talking about the weather. Literally.
Do you collaborate with others or prefer to work alone, and why?
Collaboration is great with people who work the same way that you do. I like getting things done. Everything on time, everything in order (I grew up in Germany and often feel that that part of myself comes from my time in Munich).
Unfortunately, not many creative people I know like to work that way. That’s why I was so lucky to find Oguz Demir, who I did the children’s books with. Not only is he a brilliant artist, but he sets due dates and keeps them. And it’s been the same for The Istanbul Review.
My partners Miriam Johnson and Victoria Harben are not only hard working, but they are fast too. We had our website up and running in three days and now, only two weeks after the project begun in earnest we’ve already had contributions from Paulo Coelho, Elif Shafak and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (We are taking submissions at the moment for our inaugural review, so for all you creatives out there do have a look!)
Is community important to you – either local or online – and if so, why?
Community is definitely important. Not only the people and their tendencies but also the architecture, the weather, all of it put together. It’s hard to explain, but there are places in the world where I can write, and other places where I turn into a sponge. Nothing comes out.
I know that sounds a bit strange, and I’m still not sure what exactly accounts for this odd phenomenon but I’ve been able to narrow it down a little. I can’t write at all in New York, Amsterdam or Paris. I can write for a few hours a day in Istanbul, Boston and Miami. But Edinburgh is where I am most efficient and I am sure it has something to do with the community here. Maybe it’s the gothic architecture, but I rather think it’s the duality of the city and the people in it. Active and passive, hopeful and pessimistic, rainy and sunny: the city of walking rainbows.
Oh, and I can’t write on a cruise ship. Pretty random I know. Sorry, I don’t think I’ve answered your question very well.
I’ve always found consistency difficult in terms of learning a craft and then practicing it regularly – is this something you’ve mastered and do you have any advice on how to maintain this?
I can’t claim to have mastered anything really. As for advice, for those who hope to make a living through their creative work I would say: know the truth (the odds, the process, the reality behind getting your work out there), work hard and don’t give up.
And writers? Find creative things to do with rejection letters. Origami swans is one way to go.
Thanks Hande for the extremely interesting insights and excellent advice. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.