Interview Series #13: Dilys Rose

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Dilys Rose lives and works in Edinburgh. She is a novelist, short story writer, poet and librettist and has published eleven books, most recently the novel Pelmanism (2014). A new novel, Unspeakable, (Freight Books) is due out in 2017. She is the programme director of the online Master’s programme in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh.

This is the thirteenth 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?

Dull as it sounds, ‘have patience’ might have been a useful piece of advice. New writers and indeed not-even-nearly-new writers can itch to get a piece finished and send it out. But once a piece is in print it’s beyond your control, so you want to be sure it’s in as good a shape as you can make it, before letting it loose on the world.

‘Put it in the drawer’ might have been another useful piece of advice. When you think you’ve finished a poem, story or novel, there’s nothing like letting it sit, unseen, untinkered with, for a few weeks. When, later, you review the work, your clear-sightedness can be alarming: Did I really write that? What was I thinking? Conversely, a thorny problem can miraculously resolve itself with little conscious effort. Either way, a spell in the drawer can work wonders.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

No. I’ve said in the past that I’ve never had the time to suffer from writer’s block and it still holds. I don’t mean this to sound flippant or derisory of those for whom not being able to write is painful. I do wonder, though, why people beat themselves up about not writing when there are other worthwhile, meaningful things to do with your life.

Do you write every day?

No. If I had no other commitments and responsibilities, I might have developed some kind of daily routine but I doubt it. Over the years I have been able to garner pockets of time which were given over solely to writing. Though these were hugely welcome at the time, I’m not convinced that having all day every day to devote to writing is necessarily a good thing, for the writer or the writing. I’m wary of the notion that a writer who clocks in every day takes their work more seriously than one who works in bursts or, to paraphrase Maurice Riordan, binges. Writing isn’t so much a job as a way of life. A regular routine may well produce more work but does it necessarily produce better work? To say ‘I wrote two thousand words today’ is not to say that you wrote two thousand usable words.

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?

I don’t have any rituals. I write at home, in my place of work, in cafes, in the car. When I find it hard to settle in one place, I try somewhere else. I’m not much good at writing out of doors as there are too many distractions (and, in Scotland, too much uncertainty about the weather!) When I was younger I preferred to stay up late and work into the small hours, though I like my sleep too much for all-nighters – but now I’m find I’m best in the afternoon and early evening.

Have you ever kept a journal?

My attempts at keeping a journal have been pitiful. I think I managed five days at a stretch once and then gave up out of sheer boredom. I’m just not interested in recording the continuum of my existence, or even of listing the highlights or the lowlights. I can’t imagine ever wanting to read back what I’d written in a diary and have little interest in reading the diaries of others: either it was intended for personal consumption and feels like prying, or it was written with an eye on posterity and so is already a fiction of sorts. But not the sort of fiction I’m drawn to.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

I’m not a planner. Certain novels – or stories, poems, librettos – require some research, both to acquire some semblance of entitlement to the material, and to find a creative entrypoint. My forthcoming novel, Unspeakable (Freight Books), is set in late 17th century Scotland and required a good deal of research. I enjoyed this side of things but found that as I opened one door, another dozen doors stood behind it, all of them tempting me to step inside. At some point research has to be put aside or it turns into procrastination. But reseach is another thing from planning. To say that I’m not a planner is not to suggest that writing just flows out of me and lands in a happy composition on the page. If only! I might not plan but I can’t move forward without some sense of where I need to go next, even if it’s just an inkling. Plot is not a great deal of use or interest to me but something has to pull me and the narrative from one scene to another, even if I can’t always articulate what this something might be. Perhaps I don’t plan because, if I did, the story would scurry off somewhere and I’d be left with a pile of notes.

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