Orcadian novelist Alison Miller is published by Penguin. I first met her back when her novel Demo came out, when she was based in Glasgow, but these days she’s back in beautiful Orkney (and her photos of big skies and glorious sunsets are guaranteed to cheer me up as I scroll through my Facebook feed…). She is taking part at the moment in a ‘Between Islands’ writing commission, which also features Kevin MacNeil (representing the Western Isles) and Roseanne Watt (for Shetland) – you can find details of a workshop she and Kevin are running on Lewis in June here.
This is the fifth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:
When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?
To keep at it, keep going, get into a habit of writing regularly. Finish things and move on. I think it’s easy, if you have a certain kind of personality or background to become discouraged, to think you’re no good, that you’re a fraud. When I look back at rejections I had when I started out – not many, because I rarely sent anything out to publications – I can see now that they were actually quite encouraging. At the time I thought, Oh well, I don’t really believe I’m any good, and here’s the proof.
I came across this video from the Atlantic recently – Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about writing:
I found it very persuasive. Perseverance, he says is vital. That I had heard before and agree with. But when he spoke about writing being hugely about failure, about never being able to realise 100% what is in your imagination, but about going back over it and back over it until you make it first of all ‘OK’ then ‘acceptable’, that struck a real chord. If, like me, especially when I was younger, you are afflicted with the kind of perfectionism that works as a deterrent to writing, rather than a spur, realising it’s ‘about failure’ could be really liberating.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?
The short answer is Yes and the only thing that helps is writing. A longer answer might look at life stages and events and see in them reasons for fallow periods. For instance, I’ve recently moved back to Orkney, where I was born, into a house we built – or had built – beside the sea. My dream! The perfect place to write. But instead I’ve found it very hard to get into a routine with writing, or even reading. Too much on my mind – coming to terms with family stuff, trying to create a garden out of a field of dochans, getting to grips with the changes in an Orkney that hasn’t stood still while I’ve been away, feeling I have to negotiate a space in the writing community, realising how important it is to me that I should find my place in Orkney.
Of course, these can all be construed as excuses! When I think like that, the image of Stephen King sitting in a cramped space with a board over his knees springs into my head and I tell myself to get on with it! The other thing I’ve realised is that I do keep writing, but that I maybe don’t yet know the best form in which to say what I want to say.
Do you write every day?
No. Though I do believe that is what we have to do if we want to overcome all I’ve described above. I find I have to sneak up on my writing, take it by surprise. I aspire to becoming like George Mackay Brown who, after breakfast every morning, put the marmalade away, swept the crumbs from the table, sat down with a biro and pad and wrote till noon. I’d like to develop that habit…
Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?
Despite having a desk beside a big window looking out on the sea and the islands, I prefer hiding away in a corner. One downside of having a big window is that you are very visible. Another is that there are many distractions. And though my dream was always to be able to raise my eyes from my writing and let them rest on a view such as I now have, the truth is I find I get on better facing a blank wall. Plus there are such big skies in Orkney in the summer and so much light, that my eyes get sore looking at a screen for too long. I have in the past had to resort to a fedora and sunglasses to cut the glare and allow me to keep writing.
Have you ever kept a journal?
I have kept a journal, though annoyingly I find that at times of real stress or big events, I don’t write in it at all. And so what it tends to record is the dailiness of life at times when it’s fairly settled. That and a general existential angst. I don’t go back and read them unless I’m looking for a particular thing, but if I did I’m sure I’d find them utterly boring and tedious – and excruciatingly embarrassing.
Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?
The only book I ever outlined, I had no inclination to write. Once I knew the story there didn’t seem much point. I have to write as if I’m reading the material myself for the first time, discovering it as I go along. It’s quite a mysterious process. Sometimes it’s just an image that comes to you and you somehow know it’s key to the mood and tone of the piece, though you couldn’t articulate why until much later, if ever.
I was interested, though, to hear some of the writers on the BBC’s World Book Club talk about this. Two crime writers, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, both Scandinavian, said that if a writer tells you they don’t know the ending of their book until they’ve written it, they’re lying. Then along comes Per Petterson, Norwegian like Nesbo, and says that very thing. And when he describes his process, I recognise it very strongly. It’s worth a listen:
Clearly they are talking about very different kinds of books and maybe crime writers are more likely to know exactly what happens in their stories, as they’re more plot-driven. It has its limitations though. For instance, I find I often guess the ending before I reach it in a crime novel and I think that’s because the writer knows and somehow communicates it without realising. But I also think it’s a function of personality: some folk like to know exactly where they are going and what they are going to do; others prefer to wander and see what comes up. I’m definitely in the latter camp. Its main disadvantage is that I start writing many things, but finish relatively few…
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