Leonora Meriel grew up in London and studied literature at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Queen’s University in Canada. She worked at the United Nations in New York, and then for a multinational law firm.
In 2008, she decided to return to her dream of being a writer, and to dedicate her career to literature. In 2011, she completed The Woman Behind the Waterfall, set in a village in western Ukraine. While her first novel was with a London agent, Leonora completed her second novel The Unity Game, set in New York City and on a distant planet.
I had the pleasure of interview Leonora back in January
What inspired you to write Unity Game?
I wanted to write about New York City, where I had lived for several years and where I started my career. However, I needed to find a new perspective on the theme, and it felt right to draw parallels with an advanced planet far from Earth. This is how the novel became Science Fiction, and then I decided to go a step further and add an after-life dimension. The inspiration started with my work on Wall Street when I lived in NYC, and the desire to write about this in an original way.
What’s the hardest challenge when it comes to writing?
Knowing when a novel is done. A novel takes years to write, and as you write, you improve your skill as a writer. Thus, by the time you have finished your novel, you could re-write it better, and then re-write it again – each re-write taking six months to a year. It’s a tough decision to know when to leave a piece of work and start a new one – which will necessarily be superior to the last. Many artists have the same problem with applying the final strokes of paint.
How much of first draft actually made it into the final manuscript?
In my first novel, only about 30 – 40% made it into the final manuscript, as I changed the plot a great deal and re-wrote large parts. In my second novel I think 60 – 70% made it through. I’m hoping this percentage will increase as my writing skill improves!
What advice can you give to aspiring novelists?
The main thing to do is write, write, write. Learn how to complete a piece of work professionally. Set a word count (short story, novella, poem, novel), then write the first draft. Edit the work as well as you can. Then let it go. Write another one. It will be better. Then write something longer. This way, you build up confidence in your ability to work professionally, and also learn to grow and develop your skills.
Are you an avid reader? What kind of books do you like to read if so?
Yes – I am an utterly avid reader. While my favourite genre is literary fiction, I try to read as widely as possible. I read across countries and across genres, I read independently published books and traditionally published books, I read fiction and non-fiction. My favourite books to read are those which have pushed some boundary of literature, for example Virginia Woolf, in her use of language; Haruki Murakami, in his expression of the borders of reality; David Mitchell, in his extraordinary word-crafting. Anything that is doing something new inspires and delights me.
What’s your writing space like? Do you have a single writing space?
I do my main creative writing in cafes, for the most part, and I like to have a corner seat where I can set up my coffee and computer and enjoy observing the bustle of a café. The lives I can see happening around me always inspire me with new ideas and thoughts and possibilities for my work.
My editing (which is 70% of the writing process) is done at my desk in my house in London, with a lit candle and flowers and my favourite Magritte paintings on the walls. This is my perfect creative environment for focusing on the language and plot of a draft and spending hours improving it.
Did you prepare by researching for Unity Game?
I had lived in New York for several years, so the main character and setting of the novel was very familiar to me. I also grew up in London and knew the legal world well, and also knew Canada. The final setting for the novel is on a distant planet, which I just needed my imagination for. Because of this, the first few drafts of the novel didn’t need any research at all, and it was only the final drafts where I had to double check every detail.
What are you planning on writing next?
I’m currently working on seven different projects, some of which are short term and some long-term (10 years or more). The piece that I plan to publish first is a literary fiction novella set in a meditation centre, that takes place inside the minds of the characters. My first two novels have been quite experimental regarding genre, and I am planning for this to be straight literary fiction – no magic, no other planets, no dead people. It’s my personal challenge to see if I can keep one novel solidly on the Earth.
What’s your most/least favourite writing trope?
I think both my favourite and least favourite trope is the metaphor. A brilliant metaphor can light up a passage and make it unforgettable. It can bring the reader deeply into the story or give them a clear insight into a character or a place. On the other hand, a bad metaphor can spoil pages of great work by deeming it ridiculous. It’s a high-risk technique but when it works, it’s wonderful. An example of a great one is Khalil Gibran on writing: “All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.” Bad metaphors are usually clichés, for example, “her eyes were gleaming emeralds” – this is so obvious it takes you out of the story for a groaning session and casts doubt on the writer for the rest of the book.
What’s the worst advice to give a writer?
To write what you know. I think it’s a good plan to start off with something you’re familiar with, but I also think that writers should be courageous with setting and subject matter and character. If writers just wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have any Sci-Fi at all, and no elves or hobbits. I would modify this advice to: start off by writing what you know, and when you go wider, be ready to learn how to research!