The heady currents of history | Lizzie Eldridge

Writer Lizzie Eldridge speaks to us about her first self-published novel Duende, which follows the tumultuous biography of tragic Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, will be officially launched in Malta for the first time at the end of April. Eldridge is already rearing for a sophomore release, however, as her upcoming book Vandalism is set to be published by Merlin Publishers.

Lizzie Eldridge: “If you’re looking to become the next JK Rowling, self-publishing is not for you”. Photo by Jacob Sammut
Lizzie Eldridge: “If you’re looking to become the next JK Rowling, self-publishing is not for you”. Photo by Jacob Sammut

What are the main pitfalls, as well as the main advantages, of self-publishing, which was your chosen route for Duende? Would you opt for this route in future?

Self-publishing is, I think, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives you complete control over your work which, at the same time, means you don’t just have to be a writer, but also an editor, designer (choosing font, book cover etc), a marketing manager of sorts and, at worst, a blatant self-promoter. I’m a writer and I’m definitely not cut out for the other jobs involved. With Duende, I was extremely lucky in all sorts of ways. It was originally published by a small ‘independent’ publisher in Dec 2011 who, as it later transpired, were basically one step up from self-publishing.

But on account of this, I was put in touch with a man called Mike Church – an English writer who happens to speak fluent Spanish. He proof-read Duende extremely carefully and added Spanish accents and corrections, so even though I hit problems with the original publishers last year, thanks to him, I had a manuscript already in very good shape to work on for the second edition (published last October).

Another friend, Alasdair Monteath – from way back when I was at school - happens to be a computer expert, and he dedicated his time and professional skills for free, ensuring that the technical side of things ran smoothly. His contribution was massive and highlights another aspect of self-publishing: you need to be pretty competent with a computer and if you're really techno-savvy then you've already got a head start.

I was also very lucky in terms of the cover for the book. For me, a book’s cover is (almost) as important as its content. It’s the first thing a potential reader sees and it has to convey a lot about the nature and the feel of the book itself. While I was in the early stages of re-editing Duende for self-publication, I came across the intensely beautiful and striking artwork of Damian Ebejer via Facebook. The colours he uses, the images, shapes, textures... it took me about a month and a half to pluck up the courage to contact him but he was kinder than kind and allowed me free reign to choose one of his paintings.

Feeling like a kid in a sweet shop, I spent many evenings completely immersed in his art... until, one night, I found it. As soon as I saw this particular painting, I said ‘Yes. That’s it. That's exactly the cover I've been looking for.’ When I noticed the title of Damian’s painting, I did a double-take: ‘The Divide of Reason’. Both the title and the image resonate so strongly – and on so many levels – with the themes and ideas contained within the novel itself. I feel extremely privileged to have his painting on the cover as it completely captures the mood and the feeling of everything about this book.

But would I advocate self-publishing? If you're looking to become the next JK Rowling then no. It’s a hell of a lot of effort on top of the hours you’ve already put in to the writing process (the only part which, personally, I love). But if you believe you’ve written a book that has some value, that has some worth, and you want to share this with others in a public way, then yes – go for it – and enjoy the fortuitous connections: the unexpected messages from strangers who’ve randomly stumbled across your novel among the millions of titles on offer from the Amazon bookshelf.

How did you go about researching the time period that the novel is set in, and what were some of the challenges of integrating it dynamically and tastefully into your fiction?

I wrote my novel back to front! I'd written over 50,000 words before it dawned on me that I might need to do a little bit of research into what was actually happening in Spain during the early 1920s. Duende begins in Barcelona on the April 23, 1900. When I began writing, my knowledge of Spanish history could be summarised as follows: there was once an Inquisition and women accused of witchcraft were burnt at the stake; the Spanish Civil War was brutal, certain well-known writers went to fight on the side of the Left, there were lots of Anarchists in Spain but Franco and the fascists won; and Federico Garcia Lorca (a prominent writer and poet who appears as a character in Duende) was shot dead by the fascists at the start of the civil war. In other words, and to put it mildly, my historical knowledge was superficial and limited.

However, once I began to do some research, and as this became increasingly extensive, the historical context of Spain became intrinsic to the development of the story, shaping the characters and breathing life into new characters who made their way into the narrative.

With hindsight, and even at the time of writing, I’m grateful that the story began long before the research as the first 50,000 words established the lives, personalities and outlook of the main characters in a way that belonged to them and them alone. They weren’t artificial constructs of an academic investigation but they had a life of their own. On account of this, the later research process was very much integrated with the writing and this was a hugely enjoyable experience: interconnections were continually being made between historical actualities and the fictional landscape of Duende, without either taking precedence over the other.

What seduced you about this particular cultural and historical milieu?

Federico Garcia Lorca. I fell in love with him and his concept of ‘duende’ when I was first studying theatre as an undergraduate at Glasgow University. Without knowing very much about him or, indeed, his work, Lorca was always my response if asked to name my favourite writer. Aged 17, I understood duende as that incredible ache when you’re faced with something so beautiful, it makes you want to cry. A heartbreaking sunset, for example, or a piece of music that hits you in the stomach, or a poem which literally takes your breath away.

And the fact that he was murdered by the fascists connected – and connects – with my own left-wing beliefs. Growing up in Glasgow – otherwise known as the Red Clydeside – shaped my political consciousness as this was emerging in sharp reaction to the extremist policies of the Thatcher years. Born into a socialist family with an older brother who introduced me to Che Guevara, Nicaragua, Yasser Arafat and the PLO, the Spanish Civil War was another topic of discussion in terms of left-wing strategies, struggles, and hybrid ideologies.

Early 20th century Spain also epitomises, for me, the wider and tragic conflict characterising Europe at that time. It was a period of intense and vibrant creative energy – with artists pushing the limits of experimentation – coupled with the rise of fascism, mass extermination of millions of people, and the same new technologies which were praised for their life-enhancing properties were used to wipe out life on a terrifying scale. Sadly, this description is equally applicable today.

What do you think remains universal about this historically-specific story?

At the heart of this story is love and I don’t think you get anything more universal than this. Although the nature of love is explored at a variety of levels, the main love story is between two men, at a time when homosexuality was either explicitly forbidden by the state and/or implicitly taboo. Given that homosexuality is far from being universally accepted now, the difficulties confronting two gay men in early 20th century Spain are hardly confined to history. And you can extend this situation of secrecy and oppression to other forms of relationships which are regarded as ‘shameful’, ‘wrong’ or not permissible from specific cultural, religious or moral frameworks.

And then, of course, you have war – yet another universal element of human life. You have the sharp and divisive conflict of interests that leads to indiscriminate and inhumane killing and torture. You have the coldblooded and heartless quest for power, gain or glory whereby, to borrow the words of the Serbian director, Kusturica, “A war doesn't start until a brother kills a brother”.

While I was writing the final chapters of Duende, coinciding with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the war in neighbouring Libya brought things pretty close to home.

What did you learn in writing this novel that you ‘transferred’ onto your next work? Do you feel as though you’ve grown as a writer?

My ‘next work’ is Vandalism, which is going to be published by Merlin Publishers later this year. However, Vandalism is actually my first completed novel so again, it seems, I’ve done things back to front or the wrong way round. This story is set in contemporary Glasgow and focuses on a young woman whose best friend is dying of breast cancer. On the face of it, Vandalism and Duende appear to be very different books and in certain ways, they are. But – and I think this is an important ‘but’ – both stories are driven by an intensity and urgency which stems from an acute awareness of the precariousness, fragility and impermanence of life. Or, to quote from Vandalism: ‘life, love and death, those three cornerstones of the human condition that seem hell bent on letting you down’.