A Sea of Lemonade: In Conversation with Sandra Nicholls

Sandra Nicholls describes her new novel, And the Seas Shall Turn to Lemonade, as an “uplifting romp through the unlikely relationship between two academic misfits and a crackpot scheme to establish a commune based on the theories of social philosopher Charles Fourier.” Intrigued? Of course you are! Winner of the Archibald Lampman Award for her second book of poetry, Woman of Sticks, Woman of Stones, and recently featured in the April issue of Ottawa Magazine, Nicholls graciously agreed to participate in this three-part interview series along with fellow Three Women/Three Books writers. Get the inside scoop on self-publishing, the benefits of Goodreads, and what it takes to navigate the literary world as a new author. Want a chance to win a copy of Nicholls’ new novel? Check out her blog for information.

What were the most frustrating and rewarding elements of the publishing process?

As a self-published author, the most rewarding aspect of the process was doing it all myself, from the size to the font to the paper and everything else in between. It was a challenge, and I made a number of mistakes along the way, but all the while I was learning and gaining even greater respect for those who do this professionally. When I decided I was going to self- publish, I started a blog to keep myself going, and to help others learn about the process. This was another adventure, and definitely kept me from giving up at several stops along the road! Still, the reward has been a beautiful book which continues to surprise me as it gazes down from my bookshelf!

(If I may interject here, I must say that the design of the cover is very beautiful. The photography, font choice and colours are wonderfully designed. Congrats!)

Frustration? Well, I would have to say the biggest frustration is the stigma which continues to attach itself to self-published books and authors. Despite spending an inordinate amount of time trying to interest newspaper, magazine and blog reviewers, I have not managed to get a single review. The frustrating part about this is that I know such reviews are a good way of finding more readers. I have a number of wonderful reviews on Amazon, reviews from actual readers, but I still suffer from being relatively unknown. This has definitely been the biggest frustration of the whole publishing experience. Self-published authors are excluded from many literary competitions and entry into the mainstream arena for book publicity.

Describe your writing process, right down to the perfect environment. Do you prefer peace and quiet or blaring music? Licorice or tea or both? Do you require specific snacks to be at your most creatively productive?

I remember reading that Alice Munro did not even like someone breathing in the house when she was writing, and I can relate to this. I like total quiet, and ideally, no one breathing in the house! Of course, this is almost impossible most of the time! I have a husband and a daughter, and a full-time job. My favourite time to write is in the morning, and in my ideal world I would get up, make coffee, go into my office and close the door and work for several uninterrupted hours. I used to be able to do this as a freelancer, but now that I have a regular job and the dog panting to go out for his walk most mornings are pretty busy and not available to me for creative work. But I have learned to get into that quiet zone whenever I have a chance, no matter what is going on around me. As a writer this has been a survival technique. I have had two books of poetry published, and I wrote most of these poems in minutes snatched from busy days, incredibly focussed minutes. It is harder with a novel, of course, but the art of focussing has stayed with me. Occasionally I go to a silent retreat and work all weekend – I can produce about 10,000 words given a couple of days. I used to have rituals before writing but I have abandoned these in the interests of time for writing itself.

One thing is that I detest reading bad writing when I am in the middle of a big writing project of my own. Not that I like reading bad writing at any time, but especially when I am in the midst of a novel – bad writing just makes me furious. I have been known to rip up a bad page out of a bad book. It just drives me crazy.

Snacks? Well, potato chips are good. I like to crunch and think at the same time….then wash it down with a good scotch. I write exclusively on the computer, and don’t keep notebooks. If I have a good idea when I am away from my laptop I just obsess over it until I get it down. If it is good, I reason, it will stay with me. If not, it will be forgotten and that will be a good thing!

What advice would you give writers struggling to find an audience?

I am not sure – this is what I am trying to do! I think it is helpful to think about the kinds of readers you figure will be interested in your book, and then seek them out through conventional or unconventional means. My first novel is about the journey towards a very unconventional Utopia, and so I am going to seek out readers who are already interested in Utopias. The trick is to figure out where they hang out, how they get their hands on books. Goodreads is an excellent site for this process. I would highly recommend their Giveaway program for authors, which is free, and allows you to reach readers anywhere in the world.

How big a role does social media play in book sales, and how active should writers be in their own marketing campaign?

Social media is huge these days, for everyone, including authors. In today’s world you have to be savvy to social media because this is where the audiences are. Sadly, it takes a huge amount of time to participate actively in social media, and as a writer, I would rather be writing. This is a huge conundrum.

What are you reading right now?

I am doing a fair bit of reading research for my next book, The Third Road, which tells the story of a young Chinese girl in 1950s Malaysia who becomes a Communist guerrilla. I just finished My Side of History, the autobiography of Chin Peng, former leader of the Communist guerrilla movement at that time, and am in the middle of The Company of Animals, an inspiring book about Ronald McKie, the last white man to be Malaysia’s Chief Game Warden. For sheer pleasure, I have also recently finished The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt, and The God of Animals, a wonderful debut novel by Aryn Kyle.

Up next? Nerys Parry! Check back for the final instalment of this three-part interview!

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2 thoughts on “A Sea of Lemonade: In Conversation with Sandra Nicholls

  1. It is helpful to hear what other writers are experiencing and how they are overcoming obstacles to promoting their book. I am not quite out of the writing cave of a first time writer… but I am beginning to form a strategy…

    I have read of some successful e-book, self-publishers paying someone established to review their book. Not sure how that works, but you have to start somewhere and if “free” isn’t working….

  2. Hi Ellie! Yes, I am always interested in how other writers are managing too. I was able to interest two established writers in reading my book and submitting a short blurb for the back cover by sending a query letter and the first two chapters, to see if they would be interested. This was very successful, and free! I have also heard about the Kirkus book review program, which you pay for. I have not done this yet, but I hear it can be successful. I guess I was hoping I could interest a reviewer solely on the merits of the book, but it seems that self-published books have a tough road to follow. Many won’t touch a self-published book with a ten foot pole, no matter what its literary pedigree. Hope this is helpful…..

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