Meet the family – Sue McDonagh
Sue is a seasoned pro at Choclit and has three books to her name Summer at the Art Cafe, Meet me at the Art Cafe and her new book released today Escape to the Art Cafe! She also appeared on Sky Arts Portrait artist of the year in 2014!
Hi Sue and welcome to my blog “A Story About A Girl” I am so excited to get to sit down and chat with a chocLit seasoned pro and learn all about you and what you have in store for us.
What inspired you to write “Escape to the Art Cafe”
It was a ‘What if’ question. My previous heroine had begun her story as a quiet person who retreated from publicity after a shameful event in her past. As the storyline progresses, she grows in confidence.
I thought, what if I begin with a character who is already outspoken, who acts first and thinks later. Where would her character arc go? How would she grow, spiritually?
And so Flora was created – a young woman of impulse. Caution does not feature in her vocabulary. She is plucked from dangerous seas by a hunky hero who gives her a ticking off about her failure to consider the danger. He seems to be the only one who can pierce the armour she’s built around herself. But why does she have this armour in the first place? It turns out that our hunky hero has his own worries too…
For me, the characters are the most important part of the story. The plot evolves from throwing them together and exploring what happens afterwards. When they start writing their own lines I know I’ve started to get it right.
What made you decide to submit with ChocLit?
I read so much ChocLit in the past and loved it. The stories always felt thoroughly satisfactory and believable. When I began my first NanoWriMo, I remember dreaming about being amongst the authors in their website, and I had the ChocLit Submissions page boomarked on my phone, iPad and laptop for years.
When I submitted my first manuscript to the NWS, the appraisal said, ‘start sending it out’, so I did. The very first thing I sent it to was the ChocLit Search for a Star competition. I totally muffed the application, and they were so approachable and humorous in their reply and I remember thinking how nice they were.
I came in one point behind the winner for that competition. I cheekily wrote to them and asked how I could improve, and they asked if I was writing anything else. I was, but it was shapeless rubbish and I couldn’t send them that! They said, if my second novel was as well received as the first, they’d offer me a two book deal. That was all the incentive I needed to get my arse into gear and sort the second book out!
If you could go back to when you first started writing what one piece advice would you give yourself?
Apart from wishing I’d started writing novels when I was much younger?
I really don’t know what advice I’d have given myself. I’ve always written to entertain, from letters to friends and family, through to newspaper articles and then blogposts. I hadn’t the first idea how to write a novel though, and I remember writing my first NaNoWriMo whilst reading How to Write a Novel via everything I could lay my hands on. As an artist, I’m used to destroying work in order to make better work, so the constant re-writing was only part of the process. I’m pretty dogged when I want to do something!
If you weren’t writing what would you be doing?
I’m a full time, self-employed artist, so that’s intertwined with my writing these days. I find it interesting how one feeds from the other. For example, Escape to the Art Café also found a plot twist in one of my own paintings. And I might write about somewhere and think, I’d really like to go and paint there. I did a solo show based on paintings inspired by Summer at the Art Café, last year. I went to Gower and painted on the coast. My travels there last year gave me a firmer footing for the sequel.
When I’m not painting or writing, I cycle my eBike, ride my motorbike, help with the running of national ladies motorbike club, Curvy Riders and I crochet. Mostly big, colourful blankets. I’ve made eight now, and given three of them as gifts. I’m in the middle of two different baby blankets at the moment. If I have an achilles heel, it’s wool. And stationery. But what writer doesn’t love stationery?
How did you deal with rejections when you started out?
I’m a pragmatist, and I’m 62. I know perfectly well that not everyone has to like me or my writing, and I was prepared for the rejections. On the whole, they were extremely encouraging, and I came very close to being accepted in several cases. I had pages of really useful advice from HQ Digital, which was spot on, and as a very new writer, I took it all on board, and even now I look back and check on the points they raised. There is always so much to learn, and I was so new! It was a workshop with Alison May, current Chair of the RNA, who helped me to change my thinking about the dreaded rejection. She told us to set a target for how many rejections you can achieve. Of course, this is a clever way of making you get those submissions out there. They’re not all going to fall on stony ground!
What would you say to someone who wants to write?
I’ve met with such enormous encouragement from fellow writers. I used to worry that ‘someone would steal my ideas,’ and now I realise that even if you gave a dozen writers the same ideas, the result would be a dozen completely different books.
I’m always encouraging to new writers – I always recommend the RNA to anyone writing any kind of romantic fiction, and I recommend that writers find a group or two to belong to. I belong to a very small group, we all write in a different genre, and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have got over the writing humps I encounter without them. I also belong to a local Chapter of the RNA, who I love meeting with. So inspiring and encouraging, and we’ve been meeting regularly via the magic of Zoom!
I have advised anyone who is writing in any sort of romantic genre, of which there are many, to join the Romantic Novelists Association for the fantastic New Writer Scheme.
Do you have any writing routines or rituals if so what are they?
I don’t have a routine for writing. I have to have a skeleton planned before I start, but sometimes things don’t fall into place as easily as I first imagined and I have to re-think.
Once the idea for a novel starts to take hold, my own routine falls apart. I forget to lock the front door and have to go back and check. The house goes unvacuumed, the fridge is empty and we live on takeaway. I still shower though. I get a lot of inspiration in a shower. It must be the effect of the falling water or something. Tricky plot problems often unravel in the morning shower. I keep wondering about buying some of those crayons you buy for children in the bath so I can write on the walls.
Otherwise, I need a new notebook for each new novel, of course, clearly that’s essential…
Which authors inspired you to write?
Without hesitation I always mention Sue Moorcroft. I first discovered her via ChocLit, and devoured everything she wrote. She once ran a workshop in Dorset and I drove all the way from South Wales and back in the same day so that I could attend it. I wasn’t disappointed, and she’s a terrific tutor. I did a weekend writing course with her a few months later. If I could have afforded to go to her Retreats in Umbria, I would have!
Otherwise, I’m very eclectic about my reading. When I was young, I adored the James Herriot and Gerald Durrell novels for their curiosity about the people and animals they encountered and their ability to make me laugh out loud. That ability to make people laugh is a rare talent.
I never read in my own genre while I’m writing. I did at first, and then found that I morphed into whatever I was reading. I happened to be reading a Joanna Trollope and noticed that my sentences tripled in length, for starters. It’s an interesting way of discovering another author’s voice versus your own. I tend to read thrillers, contemporary literature, and I read the whole of Deborah Harkness’s Discovery of Witches without breathing. At least, that’s how it felt… I hate to be without a book. Thank goodness for the miracle of The Kindle!
Who would you want to play the main characters in your book if your novel was optioned for tv / film?
Ooh, this is a lovely question. I’ve had somebody in my head as the hero for each of my books. It’s rather naughtily like having an affair with somebody different every year, perfectly legitimately.
So for Summer at the Art Café, I pictured Gerard Butler as Ash. I still think he’d be the perfect casting, and I just love his sense of humour. As well as how he looks, obviously, ahem…
Meet Me at the Art Café was based on a photo of someone from Pinterest, which I use a lot. I think I was still in love with Ash when I wrote that. I would have a lot of fun casting Ed. I bet my readers have some ideas!
My most recent novel, Escape to the Art Café, was inspired by Chris Hemsworth, the actor who plays Thor in the Avengers films. I absolutely loved him in Thor: Ragnarok. I’m always attracted to a man who can make me laugh. The muscles are of course, a very welcome addition, but, y’know, I’m not superficial. I don’t objectify men. I appreciate them…
The girls are more difficult to cast – because I suppose they’re all me, in some small way. I borrow my own flaws and fears and pour them into my heroines – but then they grow into their own personalities and I think this is what makes them real.
My book 4 has a hero already, so the Lock Screen on my phone is showing him now. Purely for inspiration, you understand. At my age…
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I’m currently planning a novel with an older heroine and younger hero. I still haven’t decided whether it will tie in to the Art Café series… I’ll have to wait and see what my characters decide! So far they’re keeping me awake and negotiating their terms. I love living in my imaginary world!.
Sue, we all dying to know about Portrait Artist of the year!!!! Did you meet anyone famous? Have you ever entered again?
That was such fun to do, but really quite stressful. I advertised on Facebook locally for people to come and sit for me so that I could practise my portraiture. The event for Wales was held at City Hall, which is a beautiful old building.
The artists were asked to convene at about 7.30 am, and offered a banquet of breakfast pastries and fruit. All of us were so nervous that most of it was left untouched, which was a shame. The artists were from all over the UK, to my surprise. I’d assumed that it was for artists from Wales, but it turned out that you could pick the nearest or most convenient venue to you, so some had travelled from Cornwall and Ireland. It was a terrific insight into the making of a tv programme, and I used that for my first book, Summer at the Art Café. We were interviewed incessantly, although barely any of it made the programme.
Each artist was allocated a sitter, and their position before them. There was no jostling for position as there is in a figure drawing class. We went where we were told, our easels had our names on it, and we were allocated a runner each for anything that we needed so that we didn’t leave our position.
The very first thing they filmed was each of us artists walking around the vast circular gallery they’d built of our self-portraits, which we’d painted as the show applications, in sets of two and three at a time. I remember that we had to walk slowly before the other artists portraits and admire them. Some portraits were mural sized, some hyper-realism, astonishing virtuoso talents. By the time I got to mine, I’d decided that I was a complete imposter and would go and hide in the loos until it was over. I had to steel myself to take my place at the easel.
I’d bonded with a couple of the other artists by then – we still converse on FB, and one of them has turned out to be a mutual friend of an author pal! – and we huddled like baby mice in the coffee breaks to look at the range of work that was being produced. Such enormous talent in that one space. It was phenomenal.
Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell were lovely, very chatty, although I inadvertently asked Joan Bakewell where the loos were, right at the beginning, without realising in that split second who she was. She didn’t miss a beat, just smiled and said that she didn’t know either. I expect they probably had private suites anyway…
Tai Shan Schierenberg, the painter amongst the judges, was fantastic. I’m a huge admirer of his work anyway, and it was worth all the stress just to meet him.
Gavin Henson, best known for his rugby, was our sitter. I think I was the only one in our section who recognised him. He was very patient, and quite sweet actually. I very much enjoyed painting that terrifically toned torso.
The day went on until about seven that evening. It was an extremely long day, and afterwards you see the programme and realise how much ended up on the cutting room floor.
My self-portrait was used in the pre-show promotion, to my astonishment. My face appeared a hundred times larger than real life, on a banner in Trafalgar Square!
I enjoyed my participation in the show, and the team actually rang me afterwards to see if I’d like to participate in the next one. I said no. I still wonder if I made the right decision, but at that time I’d begun to realise that it was about making a television show, not necessarily about finding the best artists. I’d given my all to that show, and I didn’t know what I could do differently for another one.
However, I’d chosen to work in acrylics for the show, and I saw that many of the artists were using oils, and had so much more ability to scrape away and begin again. The experience made me determined to improve my abilities and I now find myself using oils more often than anything else. Maybe I will give the show another try, one day. You’re never too old to learn!
Sue tells us all about herself below:
My career as a policewoman in the Essex Police was interrupted when I was twenty four by ovarian cancer. A year of surgery and chemotherapy meant a successful recovery, which led to a convalescent year in the Essex Police Press Office. This suited me as I’d always fancied being a journalist, and meant that I could play with joined up writing and stationary.
When I moved to Wales to marry a man widowed by cancer and became instant mum to his two little boys, I used my Press Office skills and wrote press releases and eventually, blog posts for the various clubs and organisations I was involved with.
Art evolved into a full time occupation and I made a living teaching and sketching portraits on the spot at agricultural and seaside shows, moving into more considered work as time went on and appearing on Sky TV in 2014 in the regional finals of the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year.
I now work almost exclusively to commission, but also give demonstrations and talks to art societies and other groups, which I enjoy.
In 1982, following chemotherapy, I cycled from John O’Groats to Land’s End in ten days, fundraising over £8000 towards a cancer scanner for St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where I was treated.
After my first hip replacement sixteen years ago, I and three friends took part in the Four Inns Challenge and walked 45 miles across the Peak District in 16 hours, raising £10,000 for MacMillan Cancer Support.
When my second hip needed replacing, I thought about commemorating it with a further bonkers fundraising idea, but to everyone’s relief, found my excitement in writing.
Ten years ago I learned to ride a motorbike, and now help to run Curvy Riders, a national, women only, motorbike club.
I live in Wales, a mile from the sea. My Border terrier, Scribble, comes to work in my open-to-the-public studio/gallery with me, and thinks the customers only come in to see him. Sometimes, I think that too.
When I’m not painting, I’m writing or on my motorbike.
I belong to a local writing group and the Romantic Novelist’s Association.
Heartbreak and cake at the Art Café …
It was meant to be the perfect romantic holiday. But then Flora Bexton’s boyfriend does the unthinkable, and she responds in the only logical way: she steals his motorbike and escapes for a
holiday by herself on the Welsh coast.
Far from the lonely trip she imagined, Flora soon finds comfort at the friendly local Art Café where the legendary hot chocolate and cake help to ease her troubled mind. And when Aussie-Welsh lifeguard Jake Foley steps in just when Flora needs help the most, she realises that her ‘holiday’ feels more like home with every passing day …
Find out about Sue’s other books on the ChocLit website.