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  • Helen Lederer

A cheeky delve into the mind of a writer and Scottish, Dutch, cakey things

Helen Lederer here - Yes! who doesn’t love a heroine, food and all that goes with it in all its comedic glory - three cheers for you Karen 

Karen Vivers, on the 2020 Unpublished Novel longlist with Kassie McKinnon is Starving

When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize and was your entry specifically written for it or were you working on it already?

I noticed CWIP on twitter when I had just finished editing my novel. At first I didn’t think I’d qualify because I’m not published, so was really pleased to see there was a category I could enter.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

Originally, I’m from the Isle of Bute, Scotland and have lived in Amsterdam for over twenty years. I met my Dutch husband when I lived in London, we did the long distance thing for a couple of years until I convinced him it was a good idea for me to move in with him in Amsterdam.

Isle of Bute © Karen Vivers

I’ve had a few other lives before my writing one, including owning my own cheese shop and giving food tours of Amsterdam as well as loads of soul destroying corporate jobs. I started writing about food roughly ten years ago while giving cooking lessons and moved to fiction about seven years ago.

Have you ever started a novel and then abandoned it?

I’ve started loads of stories in my head. It took me years to actually write anything down though.

Did you write poetry as an angsty teenager?

No. I was too busy trying to be cool and where I’m from, poetry is definitely not cool. I did spend an unhealthy amount of time searching for hidden meaning in the words of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet songs though.

Can you describe what your novel’s about in two sentences?

It’s about a young woman, Kassie, who struggles with her weight and believes she’s only worthy of getting what she wants if she is thin. But if she doesn’t face the truth about her relationship with food, she’ll have a lot more to lose than just her weight.

What made you write your book? Where did the idea or impulse behind it come from?

I’ve had problems with my weight since primary school and was diagnosed with a Binge Eating Disorder in my mid-thirties. My diagnosis made it possible for me to address my issues with food and am now much better.

There were many painful, depressing things for me about being fat and constantly dieting. Being unable to control my eating and my weight made me absolutely desperate, and hungry. I think it’s important to understand that being overweight can be a very complicated issue and that’s why I wrote about it.

Amsterdam canal © Karen Vivers

Did you set out to write a funny book? Where does the humour come from in your book?

I wanted to use humour because I believe it’s one of the best ways to connect with people. Given the subject matter though, I really wasn’t sure if it was appropriate, but at the same time I worried the book could become quite a sombre read without it.

Then I realised what I needed to do was avoid laughing at Kassie, but to give her a good sense of humour so we could laugh, and cry, with her. I’d describe the humour in the book as a little dark sometimes, with a bit of self-deprecation and a touch of satire.

Can you read funny books when you’re writing your own? Who do you enjoy reading?

I did, because I think if you are a writer, you have to keep reading. But it was difficult not to let other voices slip into my writing. Even more difficult to resist throwing my manuscript out the window after reading someone else’s fantastic work.

Funny women writers I enjoy reading are; Marian Keyes, Gill Simms, Lucy Vine, Nora Ephron, Dawn O’Porter, Beth O’Leary and Mhairi McFarlane.

Have you ever read anyone else’s bad review and felt slightly chuffed? (Lying is permissible in this answer.)

I have to admit, in those darker writing days, I’ve been guilty of scrolling through other people’s bad reviews. I didn’t linger though, I told myself to cut it out, they might have got a bad review, but at least they’ve been published.

Can you tell us about your writing routine?

This was my first book, so I had no routine. I’m an obsessive list maker by nature, so that was where I started. But it got out of control, I had so many scattered lists I couldn’t see what was going on. I even bought a huge whiteboard at one point to try and make sense of everything. It didn’t give me the insight I’d hoped for though, just a bruised big toe when I dropped it on my foot. But somehow, I got there. Taking writing courses helped a lot and now that I’ve started my second novel, I definitely have a more structured approach. What I’ve learned is that it’s important for me to find the balance between having enough structure to give me direction but with enough flexibility that I can change course if need be.

Karen's writing balcony with a view in Amsterdam © Karen Vivers

Where do you write?

I’ve been kicked out of my usual space (our spare bedroom) by my husband who, like so many people at the moment, is working from home. So I’ve been writing on the balcony when weather permits and at the dining table when it doesn’t. When I go into my old writing room to use the printer, I have to be careful not to flash past in the background of his zoom meetings sporting my bird’s nest hair and an old t-shirt with no bra underneath.

You can’t find the right words to make a sentence chime: do you (a) swear? (b) cry? or (c) eat? - if (c), what item of food?

All of the above, with a heavy emphasis on the swearing. Given my history, I have to be careful about eating though. But is doesn’t stop me going to the freezer and staring at the ice-cream. When I start stroking the tub I know it’s time to shut the door.

What difference has being longlisted for the CWIP prize made to you? What would you say to anyone thinking of entering next year?

Being longlisted for the CWIP prize has made a HUGE difference for me. After years of plodding away on my own it’s given me a massive confidence boost and the motivation to keep going. I appreciate all the hard work put in by everybody at CWIP and am so grateful to Helen Lederer for championing us funny female writers, no matter at what stage we are in our career. To any writers thinking of applying next year – DO IT!

Me again – we love your steer here - my version of your version is ‘screw it just do it!’

Originally from the Isle of Bute, Karen graduated from Napier University and the University of the West Coast of Scotland with a business degree. After a host of corporate jobs in London and Amsterdam, she decided to go it alone. Karen founded one of the best delicatessens in the Netherlands, gave cooking lessons and food tours of Amsterdam before admitting all she really wanted to do was write funny stuff.



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