About a year and a half ago, I critiqued Gina Maya’s manuscript Utopia in Danzig, which blew me away with how creative and challenging it was. After Gina redrafted based on my suggestions, I conducted a line and copy-edit. Gina recently self-published the novel, so I got in touch to catch up with her.
SP: Tell us a little bit about your novel, Utopia in Danzig. What’s it about and what inspired you to write it?
GM: At the simplest level, it’s about a hotel, where people never want to leave. It sounds like I stole the idea from The Eagles’ Hotel California, but I think hotels are weird places, simultaneously comforting and creepy. The plot itself involves a girl on the run from the mob. She enters the hotel, and the mob enter after her. They all begin to enjoy the kind of happiness they’d never experienced before, and as their memories fade, they decide to stay forever. Or at least, that’s how it develops to a certain point, before things become a little darker for everyone involved.
I think I wrote it for several reasons. It’s about repression and release and the dreams we had when we were young, and relating to all this, the failure to realise our dreams. I guess this is a reflection of the questions I was asking myself at the time when I started writing it, about whether the life I had was really what I wanted.
SP: It’s an original novel in both style and story – was its uniqueness one of the reasons you decided to self-publish?
GM: To get to the brutal truth first, I self-published because I went the wrong way about my novel. Initially, after writing it, I sent it off to all the agents who I thought might be interested. I didn’t think about using an editor at this point. No agent was interested, though a couple wrote back with some nice comments.
It was after all the rejections that I thought about getting an editor, and that’s when I found you on the Internet. After your feedback, the novel was much stronger, but I felt it was too late by then to re-send it, so I decided to self-publish.
About its originality, this wasn’t deliberate. I was at a time in my life when I felt very repressed about who I was. The dreaminess and surrealism of the story reflects the way I saw the world at that time, with personal happiness only being possible magically or in dreams.
SP: That makes sense – and I think this worldview gives the novel a sense of gravity and authenticity. What made you decide to hire an editor, and what made you choose me?
GM: The rejections of agents showed me that my writing and story-telling wasn’t good enough. I wanted to get better, and I wanted my novel to be better. I did two things: I got in touch with you, and I also began looking into studying creative writing at a university.
I remember your website looked good. I read your posts and I got a good feeling about you.
SP: That’s nice to hear, thank you. You first asked me to critique your manuscript before editing it. What was it like receiving the feedback, and what advice would you give authors receiving critical feedback on their work?
GM: Your feedback was written really constructively. I can compare you with someone else I briefly got in touch with; their tone was colder, more relentlessly critical, and it annoyed me that they regularly used the opportunity to promote their new book on making the novel better. I basically felt they weren’t interested in my story or my ideas or my talent, in what was for them clearly just a day job or a business transaction and nothing more.
Your feedback had a warmth to it, it was subtly written, which suggested that your critiquing is also nuanced and subtle. Your manuscript critique looked at the big picture first, which meant you were interested in me as a writer and what I had to say. From that point, I realized I was working with someone, rather than just taking feedback from someone.
In terms of advice for authors receiving feedback, I think it’s important to work with someone you feel capable of letting your guard down with, someone you can trust. It’s best, therefore, to receive a critique of the whole story first, in terms of it ‘as a story’. Don’t start with the micro level. You need to know that the person critiquing your work is actually interested in your story.
SP: That means a lot to me – thank you, Gina. Did your expectations of working with an editor differ from reality, or was the process what you expected?
GM: My confidence was low when I went to you, and I guess I was expecting lots of comments at the level of errors and phrasing, rather than story. I guess looking back I didn’t expect you to be interested in the story at an ‘organic’ level, and it was wonderful to see you commenting on the world I’d created, to know you were looking at both the wood and the trees.
SP: That’s exactly what I try to do with a critique, so I’m glad it was helpful. Are you writing anything new at the moment?
GM: Yes! It’s what I was writing on my MSc Creative Writing course at Edinburgh University, so about 60% is already done. But I have to admit I’ve barely touched it since I finished the course in August. It’s much more autobiographical, about my life in Saudi Arabia and my being in the closet back then about being transgender. One thing I have been doing is writing weekly diary posts for my website, and I think I will return to these for ideas; I think keeping a diary is a good way of putting down ideas for your writing. The novel itself will be about the transgender journey from denial and repression to coming out, and the highs and lows once you’re living it. I am looking forward to returning to it in May – from which I’ll devote the rest of the summer to it.
SP: It sounds very interesting. If you could go back in time, what piece of writing advice would you give your younger self?
GM: I wish I’d gone to you before I’d sent away my novel to the agents. I’ve learned that keeping a diary is really useful and I wish I’d started keeping one much earlier. There are so many things in life I’ve forgotten in terms of details, of what people said. I can remember people making me sad or angry or happy but their exact words evaporate quickly enough. For those small details that can make a piece of writing special, a diary can make a huge difference, and you’re not starting with a blank slate either.
SP: Where can we find out more about you and your work?
GM: I have a website, www.ginamaya.co.uk, in which I write my weekly diary posts about being transgender, and also my cinema reviews. My novel is being promoted on it, and is linked to Amazon. One potential point of confusion, though: I’ve self-published it under my former male name of Gwydion Roberts. I guess I had my reasons for doing this, which I touch upon on my website. Enjoy!