Coffee Spills & Songs by Berendsje Westra

Jul 16, 2021 | Reviews

I’m lucky enough to be a part of a writing feedback group. Every month, we send a piece out to two people and get some ideas on it. In return, we read two pieces from other writers and share our thoughts. It’s a lovely community that’s allowed me to meet a range of writers and to hone my editing skills.

One of the people I met in the group is the lovely Berendsje, who has just self-published her first novel, Coffee Spills and Songs. It’s a dramatic story of a young woman coming to terms with a traumatic childhood event and a difficult relationship with her mother.

I wanted to find out more about writing from different perspectives, her experience of self publishing and why she chose a flight attendant as her main character. Read on to find out more…

Your book centres on the experience of a flight attendant living in London. Why did you decide to use this location and profession and how did it affect the narrative?

First of all, thank you for having me, Sarah. I’ve been reading your blog posts for a while now, and feel honoured to be given a spot!

It feels like a long time ago now, but when I was twenty-one, I moved to London and ended up staying for six years. It was a fantastic adventure and I loved every moment of it.

I don’t remember making a conscious decision to set my novel in London. I started writing a novel when I lived there and later used some of the ideas for it for Coffee Spills & Songs. I think the English setting came about naturally, but it did make the writing process very enjoyable.

Sitting at my desk in Holland, I revisited all the London places I’d loved in my mind, which made me feel close to that period of my life again. I often still miss living in England, after all this time.

As for my protagonist Carys’s flight attendant job and her home in Kew near the airport, I did choose that consciously. Writing from experience helped me with the novel. Like Carys, I was also a flight attendant for four and a half years. What I love about Carys’s job is that it facilitates the international setting. The time I spent in Singapore and New York when I was a flight attendant helped me with the chapters that are set there. Plus, the way Carys deals with antagonist Ryan at the end of the book was only possible because of her job.

I’d like to add that although my protagonist Carys doesn’t like her job much, I loved the buzz of flying around the world. But because I wanted to study English Literature at Groningen University I needed a job with more regular hours, so I left.

Inspiration for her main character came from lived experience

In parts of the book you switch to the point of view of a much younger character. How did you capture the difference between a mature voice and such a young voice?

During my MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School, I shared chapters from my novel which was then a work in progress. I got some brilliant feedback, and one of the things that was flagged up was that my child protagonist didn’t consistently sound like a child.

I then rewrote these scenes, with some resentment I’ll admit, because I had to simplify my writing for the child’s perspective and cut some lovely passages. But it had to be done and it was an important lesson. When you craft a world that’s seen through the eyes of a child, then there will be restrictions with language and perception.

I read Room by Emma Donoghue, to see what I could improve in my own writing, and I reread The Catcher in the Rye, which, although told from a teenage perspective, helped me think about voice in general.

There are some darker undercurrents in your book related to family and depression. Why did you choose to include them and how did it influence the style of the book?

I wove two narrative threads together: one set in the 1980s and one in the present (2010) and they merge as the story progresses. Without the darker plot line, it would’ve been just about Carys chasing Ryan. But her fear of loss and her loneliness that stem from what she went through with her family influence her behaviour towards him. The story is written in first person, so we know that Carys’s thoughts can be dark and painful, which adds to the mood of the book. Hemingway said: ‘Write hard and clear about what hurts’ and I have that pinned to my wall as a reminder.

Carys is part of a bereaved family. She struggles with feelings of guilt as a result of what happened to her sister and talks to a therapist. Her mother has bipolar disorder and is admitted to a mental ward for the second time in five years. But the mental illness aside, Mum had a lot to deal with too: losing a child, being stuck in an unhappy marriage and not given a chance to follow her dreams, which is why she told Carys: ‘The walls of this house are papered with disappointment.’ We only see the mother through Carys though, which means that after they fall out, Mum disappears from the pages for a while.

I must say that I didn’t actually plot that much, and this is the story that came out. But of course, family dynamics, mental health and loss are themes that interest me. I gravitate towards darker themes in general and also have a great interest in death and what’s beyond it. The protagonist in my next book is actually a funeral celebrant!

You can get the ebook and paperback here

As for my novel’s structure: it was inspired by Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. Her flashbacks also show how someone’s childhood can shape their adult life, although I opted for flashback chapters.

You self-published your book. Could you tell me a little bit about what that process was like for you?

Well it started towards the end of last year, when I received an offer of publication from an independent publisher. I haven’t got an agent to fight my corner, but thankfully we have the Society of Authors. They vetted my contract and pointed out several red flags. When I asked the publisher if it was possible to make changes to the contract, he replied that it depended on what the changes were, but if I wanted changes then maybe they weren’t the right publisher for me. Lacking the experience, I thought that maybe I should just be grateful and not be difficult. After all, I’d spoken to an author who said she was happy with what that same publisher offered her. But when I asked my contact at the SoA if she would sign the contract if she were in my shoes, she said that if she were me she’d self-publish.

I didn’t sign the contract but still wasn’t sure about self-publishing. Then I got a copy of the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook, with the objective to look for more agents, but towards the end of the book there was a section on self-publishing, written by hybrid authors. After reading their essays, I made up my mind: after almost a year of querying and around seventy submissions, I’d take the plunge and self-publish. The process has been tiring but definitely interesting and rewarding. Doors are opening already, because my book is out there now. I’m getting royalties and I’ve learnt so much, especially about formatting and marketing.

When I’ve completed my work-in-progress The Martyr and the Butterfly (with the funeral celebrant), I will definitely go agent hunting again, but if I don’t manage to find one, or if the agent won’t manage to find me a publisher, it’s good to know I have options.

What advice would you give to writers starting out in their career?

The advice you hear all the time, which is: read as much as you can and read eclectically.
Do make sure that you don’t use all the reading as a procrastination device though. You need to write a lot too. Try to discover what works for you. Some people write every day, others don’t. Some writers have a daily or weekly word count target. See what works for yourself and find a flow, but do realise that writing a book is a huge undertaking and time won’t wait, so put your writing high on your list of priorities.

Try and find a writing group or a critique partner you trust. If you’re working on a novel the latter is probably even more important than the former because your story as a whole needs addressing, not just random chapters.

And when you’re an exophonic writer like I am, make sure you get feedback from native speakers as there may always be little language intricacies you’re unaware of. As Sue from my writing group pointed out when she went through my manuscript: ‘Meat is hung but people are hanged.’ Excuse the horrible example! ☺

Berendsje Westra is a Dutch writer who lives in the Netherlands in a small village near the sea. At home, she speaks Frisian but she writes her stories in English. Her love of all things literature led her to study Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School and English Literature at Groningen University. Berendsje is particularly interested in writing about places, minority languages & culture, spirituality and identity. She’s also a keen gardener and loves taking her dogs on long walks through the Frisian countryside.

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