Friday, October 20, 2017

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Leonora Meriel, Author

Leonora Meriel, Author
When Leonora Meriel starts to write a novel, she is never sure which genre will “rise most strongly to the surface.” Whether she is bringing us the “magical realism” of her first novel THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WATERFALL, or the expanded realm of science fiction in her most recent novel, THE UNITY GAME, she writes to the perfection of literary fiction. She creates characters who have flaws preferring the grey-tones of real life to the black and white of heroes versus villains. Her extensive travels have given her insight and the ability to stay open to the uniqueness offered by other cultures and lifestyles.

Meriel shares her home between London and Barcelona, and enjoys exploring the worlds offered by travel as well as the world surrounding her two “interesting” children. She finds that running helps to clear her mind. She is currently working on a new literary fiction novel.

Q: Your novels cross genres. When telling your stories, do you consider what is the most appropriate genre? Are some themes better told in specific genres? Is science fiction more supportive of telling some stories and literary fiction others?

Leonora Meriel: When I set out to write a book, I usually have a myriad of ideas, but I am never certain which ones are going to develop into the main story line. It takes a few weeks of following different paths before I understand which central idea lies the deepest in me and demands to be explored through the 3 – 5 years it takes to perfect an entire novel. In the same way, those myriad ideas may each fall into different genres, and so when I start a novel, I never know exactly which genre will take precedence or which idea will rise most strongly to the surface.

I enjoy mixing combinations of genres, however I see all of the genre elements I use as existing beneath the umbrella of literary fiction, which will always be my primary genre. My understanding of literary fiction is where the quality and artistic value of the writing comes first, and the plot, characters and everything else comes second. In pure genre fiction, this is often the other way round.

Q: THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WATERFALL has been described as “magical realism”—an interesting and appealing concept. How do you define magical realism? And how does THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WATERFALL meet that definition?

Leonora Meriel: I define magical realism as a story that is at least 70% set in the accepted world and society of humankind. The other 30% may be supernatural elements, usually associated with the spirit world. In magical realism, the magic is not at the center of the story, but it enhances the story. One could contrast this with zombie or wizard genre fiction, where the supernatural elements are the very core of the story. In magical realism, they are a feature that support a central story told in the real world.

In THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WATERFALL, the main characters are a mother and a daughter living in a village in western Ukraine. Their life is simple and very rooted in everyday domestic tasks – fetching water from the well, making a cake of honey and walnuts. The mother drinks vodka and struggles with depression. Around this story, the spirit of the grandmother returns to a nearby riverbank to help the mother overcome her unhappiness, and the daughter finds she can merge into the spirit of nature around her. Thus, the central story is the search for happiness, but the magical realism elements serve to illustrate and enhance aspects of that journey.

Q: One reviewer describes THE UNITY GAME as “sci-fi with a bit more of a deeper meaning” and “deeply philosophical science fiction.” Others applaud “love of characters” & “creative plot.” How did you conceive of the plot? Are you a SciFi fan?

Leonora Meriel: I love any writing that is brilliant, irrespective of genre, and some of the best literature ever written is science fiction. A few of the books that have deeply influenced me are Stanislaw Lem’s SOLARIS, Ursula Le Guin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and more recently Ken Liu’s THE PAPER MENAGERIE. These are some of the finest pieces of fiction ever written and the fact that they take place in different worlds and dimensions makes them even more powerful and transformative.

One of the key elements of great sci-fi is that it is always deeply philosophical. Life on another planet will always cause us to consider life on our own planet, and one of the key tasks of sci-fi is to question, to provoke questions, to envision futures. It is perhaps the most challenging of all genres, as it demands a relation to the current world and a relation to the possible, in the way that fantasy (zombies and wizards) does not. When I started writing THE UNITY GAME I had burning questions about the meaning of everything, and I found that those questions did not fit into an Earth-based plot. Sci-Fi enabled me to go as wide and deep and philosophical as I desired in order to explore possible answers to those questions.

Q: You travel extensively and have lived in multiple countries with different cultures. How does travel influence your writing, your characters, and your plots?

Leonora Meriel: I believe that travel is essential for a writer. Ideally, not only visiting, but living in different cultures, and allowing those cultures to change you and permanently open something new in your character and your soul. As children, we are all immersed in the culture and thought-systems that we grow up with, and the older we get, the harder it becomes to stop imbedded beliefs from stagnating permanently inside you.

 I believe that part of a writer’s job is to battle against residual thought-patterns and to strive to stay open to other ways of thinking and other cultures and other perspectives. The writers and artists must be the ones in society who envision new thought and futures and possibilities and cultures and societies. But this new thinking will not come from dusty, inherited knowledge. Travel and new cultures are essential to keeping minds and hearts open and receptive and curious.

Q: Reviewers claim that THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WATERFALL is “thought-provoking.” Did you intend for the novel to deliver a message and make readers think? Or did you write it primarily to entertain?

Leonora Meriel: THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WATERFALL was my debut novel and my main goal was to write the best possible book that I could. I had many ideas I wanted to write about but there wasn’t a central message that I planned to convey. However I did have one specific goal within the book, which was to portray the culture and land of Ukraine, and allow readers in the west to experience a country where I had lived for many years, and which was wildly beautiful. I am delighted that reviewers have called it “thought-provoking” as that suggests that some of the ideas that run through the novel have resonated with readers.

Q: How do your characters engage the reader? Why will readers care what happens to them? Are they super-heroes or ordinary people in extraordinary situations?

Leonora Meriel: My characters are all ordinary people, and they all have a balance of strong points and flaws. In my debut novel THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WATERFALL, Lyuda believes she has got everything in her life wrong and can’t bring herself to embrace happiness. It is her seven-year old daughter, Angela, who forces her to confront her issues and make a choice, but not without herself experiencing some of the pain of the adult world.

In my second novel THE UNITY GAME, the hero is a New York banker who is sucked into the addictive world of money and success and ego, but finds he is unable to cope.

I try to make the characters I write extremely realistic, so that even if the readers could not imagine themselves in that position, then they clearly understand how the characters are in that position and why they are taking the actions they choose. I truly believe that once we can see through the eyes of another human being, then we will empathize with them automatically, and this is one of the great tools open to writers – to draw readers into worlds that they wouldn’t normally have access to – and to open their minds and hearts just a little wider.

Q: THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WATERFALL is set in Ukraine and one reviewer says that the reader will “experience the authenticity of Ukrainian village life.” In addition, does the story have a universal theme relevant to a spectrum of readers?

Leonora Meriel: Yes, it certainly does. The universal theme is – the search for happiness. Lyuda, the main character, fights against depression every day. She has made mistakes in her life, and she allows herself to live in the past, as I think many people in the world do today. Her daughter, Angela, lives very much in the moment-to-moment joy of everyday life – seeing the changing nature and seasons around her, and the tiny details of the world as filled with happiness. Slowly, she teaches her mother to live in the present and leave the dark past behind. In this strange world we live in, I think that ‘what it means to be happy’ and ‘how to be happy’ are big questions that we all ask ourselves. In THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WATERFALL I explore this from several points of view and I intended it to be relevant to a wide spectrum of readers.

Q: Does the concept of “heroes vs villains” apply to your story-telling? If so, can you describe the characteristics of an effective villain? Can culture, mores, philosophies, religion, or family traditions be considered villains?

Leonora Meriel: I don’t use the concept of “heroes” or “villains” in my novels, as this is a simplistic view of people that fits better with genre fiction or with children’s books. I am far more interested in shades of good and bad, and how individuals struggle with the challenges of moving in directions that are more or less harmful to them. Culture, mores, philosophies, religion, and family traditions can certainly be used as villains within a story, but in this “villainous” role they would act simultaneously as catalysts to provoke the characters to certain actions. For example, in my most recent Sci-Fi novel THE UNITY GAME, the alien character is emboldened to reject its home planet and its philosophy once it has realized that there is no true free will there.

Q: What’s next?

Leonora Meriel: A new literary fiction novel. My aim is to write a novel without using any other genres – a straightforward tale with some great quality writing. However, neither of my novels so far has turned out to be how I envisioned them at the beginning, so you’ll have to wait and see!

Q: Tell us about Leonora Meriel. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Leonora Meriel: Exploring is the main thing I do – which is really research as a writer. I love to explore countries, cities, ways of life, new people, different personalities, roles and also new worlds in books. I am the mother of two incredibly interesting children, and I try to understand their world as it forms around them. Apart from exploring, I love to run, which clears out all the thoughts that have entirely filled my head. And visit the city of Barcelona as much as possible, where there is so much creativity on every street corner, and sunshine and laughter and sea.

About Leonora Meriel

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 2003 she moved from New York to Kyiv, where she founded and managed Ukraine’s largest Internet company. She studied at Kyiv Mohyla Business School and earned an MBA, which included a study trip around China and Taiwan, and climbing to the top of Hoverla, Ukraine’s highest peak and part of the Carpathian Mountains. She also served as President of the International Women’s Club of Kyiv, a major local charity.

During her years in Ukraine, she learned to speak Ukrainian and Russian, witnessed two revolutions and got to know an extraordinary country at a key period of its development.

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.

Leonora currently lives in Barcelona and London and has two children. She is working on her third novel.

Heartbreak and transformation in the beauty of a Ukrainian village.

For seven-year old Angela, happiness is exploring the lush countryside around her home in western Ukraine. Her wild imagination takes her into birds and flowers, and into the waters of the river.

All that changes when, one morning, she sees her mother crying. As she tries to find out why, she is drawn on an extraordinary journey into the secrets of her family, and her mother's fateful choices.

Can Angela lead her mother back to happiness before her innocence is destroyed by the shadows of a dark past?

Beautiful, poetic and richly sensory, this is a tale that will haunt and lift its readers.

What if the earth you knew was just the beginning?

A New York banker is descending into madness.

A being from an advanced civilization is racing to stay alive.

A dead man must unlock the secrets of an unknown dimension to save his loved ones.

From the visions of Socrates in ancient Athens, to the birth of free will aboard a spaceship headed to Earth, The Unity Game tells a story of hope and redemption in a universe more ingenious and surprising than you ever thought possible.

Metaphysical thriller and interstellar mystery, this is a 'complex, ambitious and thought-provoking novel' from an exciting and original new voice in fiction.

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