Sharon Maas’ early novels were set in India, a country she has spent considerable time in and has a special connection with. Her last three novels are set in Guyana in South America where she hails from (then known as British Guiana), a fascinating and colourful backdrop for her tales of racial tension, forbidden love and family secrets.
Welcome to my blog Sharon and thanks for agreeing to answer my questions!
Please can you tell us something about your original journey to publication?
That’s a very long story, which I’ll try to cut short! In the late 1990’s I wrote my first novel. It was over 700 pages long, and surprisingly it found an agent at the first try. She said it was terrific, but needed cutting, and she sat down with me and helped me with the culling of pages and pages of padding. I got it down to 450 pages, resubmitted it, and she tried for a year to find a publisher. At my last phone call with her I broke down in tears. But then I got up and wrote another book – that was Of Marriageable Age. When the agent didn’t get back to me (probably she was sick and tired of me by then!) I sent it to a manuscript assessment service and got help in revising it. The woman who edited it loved it so much that she sent it straight to the agent she was scouting for, and the rest is history. The new agent (from a top UK agency) rang me up and asked me to come to London (I lived in Germany), which I did immediately, and stayed at her home. A few weeks later the novel went to auction and was eventually bought by HarperCollins. It did reasonably well.
I wrote two more novels for HarperCollins, which didn’t do as well as OMA, and so it was very risky of me to write a fourth novel in a setting they thoroughly disapproved of!
The attitude then, and even now, in the publishing world is that readers aren’t brave enough to tackle books set in out-of-the-way places like Guyana, South America, so I basically gave myself a huge handicap. In the end I stayed stubborn and chose to part from HarperCollins rather than change the setting to India, which is what they wanted. I thought it would be easy enough to find a different publisher, but it wasn’t. Yet I was determined to write “Guyana” books as that is where my childhood was spent, and those experiences and memories are the treasure-house from which I write my stories. I wrote novel after novel but could not find either an agent or a publisher for ten years. It was a time of struggle, of having to pick myself off of the ground after yet another rejection, and start again.
The dawning of the digital age was my salvation. Bookouture snapped up the digital rights to Of Marriageable Age and proceeded to publish one after the other of my Guyana novels. So, one can argue as much as one wants about the relative merits of e-books and print books – e-publishing relaunched my writing career, which is now in full swing! The novel which will be published in July is called The Sugar Planter’s Daughter, and it is the first book I wrote while holding down a day-job; all the others were written during my very long maternity leave.
What were you like as a child?
Looking back, I see two sides to my child-self. On the one hand there was the extremely shy, silent little girl who could spend hours curled up with a book or simply dreaming and philosophising — yes, I had real philosophical discussions with myself on the meaning of life, God, the essence of thought, and so on.
On the other hand I was extremely adventurous. I was a tomboy and did things other girls didn’t – climb trees and so on. My best friend was an English girl whose father managed a shipping company and she lived next to the dry dock and we ran all through the place, through the machines, climbed up the ships, tightrope-walked on metal beams across abysses, and so on. I also loved swimming, going to beach or into the Interior to swim in the black-water creeks. At ten I decided I wanted to go to school in England and I went there all alone and didn’t see my parents for ages – I stayed with a foster-mother in Cumberland, one who had a riding school, as I also loved horses and wanted to be a cowboy.
So those were the two sides of my personality. I’m glad I didn’t grow up today as I would surely have been put into therapy. It can’t be healthy to be so silent, can it!
You are from Georgetown in Guyana – how would you describe this place to someone who’s never been there before?
Just about everyone who grew up in Guyana – or British Guiana, as it was called then – waxes poetic when they talk about “home”. I could describe the majestic white wooden houses nestled in luxurious gardens in Georgetown, or tell you about the magnificent forests and wildlife, the SeaWall along the Atlantic coast, the endless green fields of sugar-cane – but it still wouldn’t capture the essence of what that country means to us. It’s a feeling, really; a kind of mellow, soft, comfortable sense of belonging. I suppose everyone has this feeling about the place they spent their childhood in and every place is unique; what makes Guyana unique is particularly hard to describe and few outsiders ever go there. It’s a peculiar place; on the South American continent but in every other way, a Caribbean country: in language, culture, society, food, history, and economics, we are part of the West Indies. Yet we don’t have the transparent sea and white sand that would attract masses of tourists, which is a good thing. What we do have is a magnificent untouched Interior. With less than a million inhabitants, most of Guyana’s 83,000 square miles is uninhabited. The Guyana Shield is one of only four intact rainforest systems on the planet, and therein lies our wealth. The kind of people who visit us are those interested in nature, who don’t mind a mosquito bite or two, who travel with bird-watching binoculars rather than bikinis.
It’s a country with a fascinating history – did you know, for instance, that the Booker Prize originated there? – and it’s all a neglected part of British history. Many outsiders have never heard of it, and it’s constantly mixed up with Ghana or Guinea. It’s like, Guyana, where?
But as in the saying about Mohammed and the mountain: if the world won’t come to Guyana, I can try to bring Guyana to the world – through fiction. I try to take people there in my novels. So if you want to know, pick up one of the books!
You are also very well travelled – please tell us something about your travelling adventures and the motivation behind them?
I spoke earlier about my sense of adventure, right? Well, when I was 19 I decided to travel around South America. I gave up my journalist job, emptied whatever savings I had, and with two friends took off via the Amazon entry to Brazil. We had no idea, no plan, no itinerary – we simply went where the wind took us! That happened to be up the Amazon River towards Colombia, from there into the backlands of Peru, over the Andes to Lima and then up to Cuzco and Macchu Picchu. After that it was up the west coast of South America to Ecuador and Colombia. We lived in a commune in Ecuador for six months, from where we could take all kind of trips here and there. This was the early 70’s and South America was crawling with Americans, mostly young men escaping the Vietnam draft. It was a fantastic time, but it ended dramatically for me on a Colombian island, where I was busted for a matchbox of marijuana and thrown into jail for an indefinite length of time – they didn’t know what to do with me. I finally got out, much more sober than I’d been before.
I returned to Guyana where my friends had already arrived and we founded a farm far away from civilisation. But farming wasn’t really my thing and by then I had a burning desire to go to India to deepen the spiritual practice I had started a few months earlier. I managed to get together the money for the flight to London (I had been writing articles on my South American travels) and from there I went to Switzerland to join some friends who were also India-bound. We went overland, via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. And that too was an unforgettable journey.
I stayed in India almost 2 years and moved to Germany in 1975, married a German, and my life became more stable thereafter. I’ve had my base in Germany ever since, and my travels are far more conventional these days.
Before you were a writer, what were you doing?
In Germany, after divorce from my first husband, I studied Social Work. Once qualified I got a job as a “probation helper”, which means accompanying people who had a criminal conviction but were spared prison, as well as those released from prison “on probation”. That was where I met my second husband. My two children were born soon after. Following the birth of my daughter in 1990 I took an indefinite time off to be a stay at home mother and when she was five I started to write seriously.
When you are not writing, what do you do to relax?
I’m now working full time again, this time in a hospital, as well as in a home for unaccompanied underage refugees, so I don’t have much “free time”. But my daughter has been living with me for the past few months and we do things together now – go for walks in the woods or to a new town we haven’t seen before. She is a qualified Yoga teacher and she has forced me to start daily Yoga again, so that’s good, if sometimes painful! I have an old dog who needs attention and I visit my husband who sadly is very ill and in a care home nearby. My daughter and I plan a trip to Athens or some other European city later this year, if only we can organise care for the dog. I still go to India once a year and spend as much time as possible with meditation, which is the main staple in my life. I also go to Guyana once a year if possible.
And, of course, I read!
If you had to choose your favourite book of those you have written, what would it be and why?
Not fair, Rebecca! It’s like asking a mother who’s her favourite child! Certainly, Of Marriageable Age is lodged there as the book that changed everything and made me know that yes, I could write a good book that others want to read. But at the moment, my favourite book is the one coming out in July, The Sugar Planter’s Daughter. It could very well be, from a professional point of view, my best, which would make sense as I do think that with every book I become a better writer.
If you had to choose one or two of your favourite books or authors of all time, what / who would they be?
Without question, The Mahabharata, the great Indian epic. No other book has ever affected my quite as profoundly as that book; it simply wiped me out when I first read it in 1973. It’s a huge book, of course, and as I didn’t like any of the English condensations I wrote my own, which is called Sons of Gods, and self-published it.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Don’t bother with what’s in trend. No need to jump on the latest literary bandwagon. Don’t try to write the next Harry Potter or Fifty Shades. Write what comes from YOU, something original that only you could write. Be true to yourself, and your writing will bring deep satisfaction to you and your readers – it’s almost like magic! If you write fiction, feel with your characters as if they were real, and that will make them real to your readers. There is so much between the lines in every novel you read, and what’s between the lines is the essence of the author. Readers feel that, even if not consciously, so make sure you give them something worth feeling!
Can you give us a peek into what you’re working on right now?
Right now I’m still finishing up the edits on The Sugar Planter’s Daughter. Then it’s back to one of the already-written novels, which needs a thorough revamp. Which book? What is it about? Ah, that’s a secret!
Like Sharon’s facebook page here. The Sugar Planter’s Daughter will be published on 22 July 2016.