Authors & Books - The Water Babes by Norman Whitney

It's long been said - and repeated on social media ad infinitum - that every book written in the English language is just a combination of the same 26 letters. However, the divide between non-fiction and fiction has always seemed a robust one. Journalists and other professionals have been known to cross the border successfully, often fictionalising their work experiences and environments. 

Norman Whitney has gone one better by choosing a completely different setting and genre for his debut novel, The Water Babes. I caught up with him online and asked him what it was like to go in at the deep end. 

What was your inspiration for this book?

My inspiration was basically to see whether I could write a  novel, following my successful career in English Language Teaching (ELT), and as someone who is now in his seventies! I wanted to write a novel that was not peppered with violence and murders.

I also wanted to promote my main theme, which is how people – even those of very different cultures, faiths, and personalities – are interconnected, even though they may not think so. That is why surprises and shocks about such connections are such a feature of the story, especially towards the end.

How did you find the process of creating fiction, having previously written textbooks?

Textbooks, especially those in ELT, have to be written within the constraints set by syllabuses, which very from country to country. These constraints affect everything, including grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and types of illustration. Syllabuses were, and still are, subject to fashions in education, which publishers had to be aware of. 

My course books were for teenagers learning English overseas, and each country has specific interests such as guidance on how to study, how / whether to include guidance on study skills, self assessment, and cross-cultural issues. Also, the different weights given to the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening in each syllabus have to be taken into account. In addition, my books specialised in the study of English in different subjects, e.g. history and geography.

Novels are free of such constraints! So, writing without grammatical or vocabulary limits came as a great relief! But there are other constraints such as continuity, consistent characterisation, and in my case, plausibility of plot lines. Adapting to new freedoms meant adapting to new conventions. Sometimes, this was relatively difficult (textbooks have wonderful artwork support which novels usually do not), but sometimes relatively easy (in novels, you can use any tense you want to whereas text books of my sort have very strict limits and prohibitions and different levels).

What was your path to publication?

My path to publication was not easy, despite textbook sales of 25 million. I needed an agent, for the first time in my life. I tried 25 agents, but none were interested, save one or two, who were very complimentary about my sample, but nothing more. I came to the conclusion that unless one were extremely talented or very lucky (I was neither), or unless one were already famous in some other field (politics, pop music, sport) the chances of getting an agent were very slim. Interestingly, several agents (hedging their bets?) asked if the manuscript had already been self-published. My other problem is that, at the age of 73, I am clearly not an agent’s idea of a solid future investment!

So I took the hint and investigated self-publishing. I looked up one or two companies that offered help, and came across Troubadour/Matador, based in Leicester. They have always been helpful, prompt, and clear. From the start, I wanted to give my book every help, and to cover all the bases (marketing, promotion, sales) that I could, and which were offered by Matador. Inevitably, this has proved costly, but since I wanted to give the book every advantage, I consider the expense worth it, no matter what happens in the future.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Yes. One idea is a sequel to The Water Babes. The other is about the closed world of luxury cruising. But I am waiting to see what happens to The Water Babes before working on other ideas in earnest.

How do you go about balancing comedy and drama in your fiction?

It remains to be seen whether readers think that there is a balance in my book…!

But for me, it helps I think to have a sort of ironic detachment to the world about us. I have found that if I tell people that my novel is set around a ladies' aquarobics class, they already seem to sense the comic potential in the basic setting. It’s a bit like setting up a situation comedy.

Add to that a mix of themes such as separation, divorce, sexual shenanigans, and a farewell party, it isn’t difficult to see how life’s dramas and even tragedies might also have their place amongst the comedic moments.

What has been your biggest challenge in creating The Water Babes?

The biggest challenge was how to introduce each character. It is an ensemble piece, (unusually for most novels, I think) and so I didn’t want to have just one dominant central character. 

I had trouble making the opening scenes plausible, because I didn’t want to bombard the readers with lots of names or initial character descriptions too soon. I needed to make space for the introduction of each character’s motives for joining an aquarobics class in the first place. Then I had to combine what is initially a character driven story with what becomes a story driven more by plot, which darkens as the novel progresses. 

The Water Babes demonstrates the old adage that no man – or woman – is an island. 
On the contrary, the story shows that we are all in this together.

The ebook is available as a free download for an introductory period 

Weds 13th July to Sun 17th July

Where can we find out more about your book?

Author website:   

Twitter: @nwhitneyauthor 

Out of character?

If you're a fan of science fiction - and unless you've been living on another planet (without galactic wifi) - you've probably heard about the story / non-story about Mr Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek film series.

But just in case, it goes like this:
- Star Trek Beyond, the new film, will portray Mr Sulu as a gay parent who's in a relationship.
- George Takei, who played Mr Sulu in the original TV series and films, and who is gay and married, has called the character development unfortunate.
- Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script, as well as playing Scotty in the reboot films, is said to have written this development of Mr Sulu's characterisation as a tribute to George Takei*, who is a prominent LGBT activist.

The question being asked is whether this change is right for this character?

When a character is well-written readers and viewers make an emotional and psychological investment. Rightly or wrongly, they have set ideas about what is and is not acceptable, based upon the parameters the writer has set in place and the audience's own expectations of the genre and plot, and their own projections. In a sense, as a writer it's exactly what you hope for - that like Pinocchio your characters come to life.

One of my early reviews for Standpoint said that the protagonist, Thomas Bladen, was way too sissified and that the hero had the potential of being a strong character, but sissy traits just didn't fit the story line. I'd love to know what she thought about Thomas in the subsequent books but I think that ship has sailed. 

Any feedback about characters is useful for a writer - even in the development stage - because it shows that people are paying attention. A good friend of mine suggested Ajit might be more interesting as a Muslim character, rather than a Hindu. However, I chose Ajit's name deliberately because it means 'unconquered' in Sanskrit, as a nod to his essentially moral nature and in contrast to Thomas's ambiguous view of life. In Thomas I wanted a protagonist with his own moral compass that might not always chime with the rest of the world. (And let's face it, who needs a chiming compass?)

As a complete aside, there's a story behind most of the names in the series, but I'll save that for another blog post!

When a character crosses a boundary, whether it's cultural or ethical, or some other line in the sand, it changes them. Sometimes there are valid reasons for it - character progression, a response to a threat or opportunity, or even as an illustration of how much they have lost their way. Sometimes we've simply come to know them better.

One of the criticisms (or delights, depending upon your preference) of the James Bond films was the lack of continuity. Each film seemed to end with an invisible reset button. The Daniel Craig era has changed that now, perhaps influenced by the Jason Bourne series.

When I set out to write Thomas Bladen I knew from the beginning that he had more in common with Harry Palmer than James Bond or Jason Bourne (I enjoy all three by the way). As writers we have to know our characters intimately so that we can write confidently about them. In a sense, the character that the readers encounter is partly their own creation too.

For Thomas Bladen surveillance has always been a way of life.

Find out more about the Spy Chaser series here:

Coming soon (once I get through the edit!)....


He lifted the envelope from his pocket and felt along the wax seal. It yielded, revealing a plain business card with one word, handwritten in capitals: CHARLEMAGNE.

Thomas Bladen always knew that his surveillance partner, Karl McNeill, kept secrets. What he didn't know was where they would lead. 

* I seem to recall that George Takei made an appearance at Redruth Library, which I unfortunately missed.