Interview Series #13: Dilys Rose

rose-dilys

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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Interview Series #12: James Robertson

James Robertson

Photo by Marianne Mitchelson

The multi-talented James Robertson is a novelist, poet, short story writer, children’s author, translator and is also a publisher. Despite being a very busy man, he is also one of the kindest people in the books world. He is the author of The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still, and The Professor of Truth. Joseph Knight won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year, The Testament of Gideon Mack was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, and And the Land Lay Still won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year. He is also the author of four short story collections, five poetry collections and numerous children’s books written in English and Scots. He runs the independent publishing house Kettillonia, and he is co-founder and general editor of the Scots language imprint Itchy Coo, which produces books in Scots for children and young adults. His latest books are the novel To Be Continued and a children’s book available in two versions, in English as The Book of the Howlat, and in Scots as The Buke of the Howlat.

This is the twelfth 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?

 I was writing from a very young age, and I never considered that there might be ‘advice’ for writers – I thought you just wrote and it worked out or it didn’t. I read voraciously and imitated everybody I read, and kept blundering on like that for years, but always learning, always improving, and finally I realised I had a voice of my own. I was reading Westerns, mainly, so I wrote Westerns too. I had a teacher of English who could easily have advised me to ‘write about what you know’, but he didn’t, he never discouraged my imagination in that way, although he was a perfectionist when it came to sentence construction and cutting out unnecessary words. Distilled to three rules, that would have been good advice: ‘Let your imagination go; write good sentences; don’t waste words.’ But I learned those rules anyway, through reading, because I recognised that these were characteristics of the kind of writing I enjoyed and admired. In my teens I sent a couple of manuscripts off to publishers and they sent them back, quite rightly, and that was sound advice even if all they were really saying was, ‘Not good enough’. Somebody might have said, ‘You must be resilient in the face of rejection’ but it wouldn’t have made any difference because it never occurred to me to give up. If I had known of Raymond Carver’s essay, ‘On Writing’, that might have helped push things along a little, but I didn’t discover Carver until I was in my late twenties. That wee essay contains the most important advice of all: make it as good as you can, or don’t bother.

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

 I have phases when I don’t want to write or have nothing to say. That’s not writer’s block, that’s just natural. So instead I read, or listen, or watch. There are plenty of other stories out there, and plenty of ways of telling them. And sooner or later, I find ideas piling up in my head again, and I start to shuffle through them.

Do you write every day?

 If you mean, do I write ‘creatively’ every day, no. I think every day, and eventually some of the thinking begins to shape into a poem or piece of fiction, and then I write as often as I can until that bit of work is finished. Also, I do a lot of translation and editing work for Itchy Coo, the Scots language imprint I co-founded in 2002 and am still heavily involved in, and this means I can switch between different writing projects depending on my mood and on deadlines. So, on reflection, not many days go by without some productive writing taking place.

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 have to get all the mundane stuff out of the way – emails, phone-calls, accounts and so on – before I can settle to write. These can also be excuses, of course, but I think they are more a kind of preparation, a limbering-up. I have a room at home which is my office and that’s where I write: this is a luxury I have enjoyed now for nearly twenty years. I wouldn’t like to have to go back to not having that space. I don’t usually get into writing until mid-morning, or even afternoon, and then it’s just a matter of how long I can keep going. Once I’m into a novel, I have a daily word-count target: 1,000 words.

Have you ever kept a journal?

 For two or three years back in the late 80s and early 90s I kept a journal. I stopped because I felt it was a distraction, in the same way that I feel writing a blog would be a distraction. Life is too short.

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

Of course I have an outline, but it’s usually pretty vague. I wouldn’t want to close down the options, in a poem or a story or a novel, by planning too much. In long fiction, the voyage of discovery is the thing that makes me want to complete the first draft. But I have usually been thinking hard, and making notes, for some months before I start that draft, so there is a map in my head, it just doesn’t have much detail on it. More important than a plan, in my view, is having a sense of the themes that might be in the story, and also some strong visual images or sound-clips from particular scenes. Everything flows from that meeting of the thematic with the physical world.

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Interview Series #11: Anne Caldwell

Anne Caldwell

Poet Anne Caldwell is also a Literature Programmer for the British Council. I first met her over a decade ago – she was running a mentoring programme that I took part in for people working in literature, and was just the right sort of warm, friendly and empathetic person for that role. We subsequently ended up working together for the National Association for Literature Development. More recently Anne has worked as an academic and teacher. Her work has been widely anthologised and was long-listed in the National Poetry Competition in 2014. She has worked as a Lecturer in creative writing at The University of Bolton and taught for the Open University. Over the last year she has worked at The Bronte Parsonage Museum, The Wordsworth Trust and has been a judge for Poetry by Heart competitions. If you’d like to find out more about Anne, her website is here or you can follow her on twitter @caldwell_anne. Her latest poetry book, Painting the Spiral Staircase is published by Cinnamon Press – more details here.

This is the eleventh 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?

I started writing when I was very young because of a really good teacher. I then had a gap, and took it up again when I was at the University of East Anglia. The best advice I had was from Margaret Atwood who was one of the visiting writers whilst I was there. She said read for pleasure, and enjoy writing – don’t see it as a chore but approach it with a playful attitude. I try and bear this in mind when I find things difficult.

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

Yes. After each book I have published I have then felt I have nothing left to say. What has helped is to think of a new project, or attend a writing workshop to kickstart a new direction. I am my own worst critic and can often spot flaws in my work rather than celebrate the positive aspects of it. Feedback from others helps this critic keep quiet.

Do you write every day?

No. But I do write at least three times a week and keep a journal that I update on a daily basis – with any thoughts or ideas.

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 like to be quiet. I write at my kitchen table and I love writing early in the morning when everyone in the house is asleep. I also ran a retreat when I worked for NAWE at the Arvon Centres and latterly at Ty Newydd – the National Writing Centre in Wales. Both weeks always produced lots of new ideas for me and were very productive.

Can you tell us more about how journalling works for you?

I have about three journals on the go for different styles of writing. I am quite disorganised so often swap between them. I have one journal for writing for my phD and another that is more like a diary. I love notebooks and my friends often buy them for me for presents. I now have got over the feeling that they are too good to write in if they are rather beautiful books. So I don’t care if I fill them just with sketchy ideas.

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

I mostly write poetry and I don’t often plan a book in advance. However, I have written two long sequences of poems – one set in Aberdeen and one in Berlin. These were based on my father’s photographs and I planned each sequence out. I then wrote in situ, rather like a visual artist sketching for a larger painting. I found this way of working very emotional and enjoyable.

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Interview Series #6: Ron Butlin

PHOTO - RON BUTLIN (1)

With an international reputation as a prize-winning novelist, Ron Butlin is a former Edinburgh Poet-Laureate. I think the first time I met him would be nearly 20 years ago now – I was Editor of Edinburgh Review and Ron had walked across the Meadows from his nearby flat to hand deliver a manuscript.

His work has been translated into over a dozen languages. His most recent novel, Ghost Moon, was nominated for the prestigious international IMPAC Award 2016. In addition to the novel At the Rich Man’s Table, next year will see the publication of FranDan and Steve (novella) and Troll Day! (verse for children). You can find out more about Ron on his website here.

This is the sixth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

[Sophy] When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

[Ron] I started as a teenager. Advice: read as much as you can and keep writing. Also, trust your imagination.

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

Stop worrying (not so easy), but also stop thinking. Thinking is over-rated. In fact, at the early stages of working on a creative piece it can be a real stumbling block. Just write . . . anything. Don’t think. Let it take you wherever. Even if you’re just describing the room you’re in, or the weather or anything. But try to avoid writing your thoughts and feelings at this stage. And don’t criticise yourself too soon. Trying to be creative while at the same time criticising every word you write as you write it, is like trying to drive with the brakes on. You’ll get nowhere. As I say,trust your imagination. Thinking can come later.

If you have another language, you could try translating some poems or stories. This can kick start you as well.

Do you write every day?

Yes. Every morning. If really pressed for time I make time – even if it’s just a few minutes to glance at what I’m working on. Keeps me in touch and keeps my imagination accessible.

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 still write longhand, even novels. This allows me to sit in armchair with an A4 pad on my knee and to write outdoors (in the garden or wherever), weather permitting.

Have you ever kept a journal?

No.

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

No. I write to explore, to discover. I am as excited to sit down to work every morning as when I started to write all those years ago as a teenager. The same challenge and the same fun!

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Interview Series #5 Alison Miller

Alison Miller

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:

http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/280025/advice-on-writing-from-i-the-atlantic-i-s-ta-nehisi-coates/

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:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02042qc

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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Interview series #4: Zoe Venditozzi

Zoe Venditozzi Pic

Zoe Venditozzi is a novelist based in Fife. She’s also a qualified teacher and is currently working as a palliative care writer in residence. Her novel Anywhere’s Better Than Here was the public vote winner of Not The Booker and she is a former Scottish Book Trust Reader in Residence. We first met several years ago when I mentored her via the Scottish Book Trust’s mentoring scheme. You can follow Zoe on Facebook here and on twitter @zoevenditozzi.

(photo by Bob McDevitt)

This is the fourth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

[Sophy]: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

[Zoe]: Hmmm… I think the best advice (which I still need to take, frankly) is to just write. I spent (spend?) far too long worrying about it and comparing my writing to other people’s. It sounds really obvious, but if you don’t actually write anything, you can’t improve it and become something close to the kind of writer you aspire to be.

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

I’m not sure that I fully believe in writer’s block. Or rather, I fully believe that you can be sitting for a long, long time waiting for inspiration to strike to no avail. It’s probably better to try and write something – anything – with the hope/desire/compulsion that at some point the right words will arrive.

Do you write every day?

No. Hilary Mantel wrote that people are always asking her if she writes every day. She said she feels like saying, “Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist?” which made me feel slightly sheepish.

Unfortunately, I don’t write every day, because paid work and my children and having coffee and doing the washing and reading books and being on Facebook all keep getting in the way.

However, Mantel went on to say, “I understand the question is really about the central mystery – what is inspiration? Eternal vigilance, in my opinion. Being on the watch for your material, day or night, asleep or awake” and I definitely agree with that.

I’m always thinking and reading and talking and taking it all in, hoping that it plays into my writing store so that when I do have more time, that it’s there, in my mind, ready to get to work.

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 prefer to write out of the house otherwise I find excuses not to write. I like to have a coffee (because it make me feel like a “real” writer). I listen to particular music that helps me to get in to the right mood or headspace. For example, I listened to Mogwai’s soundtrack for Les Revenants for my last novel and I’ll be listening to a lot of Chopin for the next thing I’m doing. I spend a fair bit of time daydreaming and procrastinating first and then I write quite quickly and in quite a determined manner.

Have you ever kept a journal?

I’ve tried to, but what’s the point? I can hear all that in my head all the time.

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

Not really, which is probably quite apparent from my lack of plotting. I’m much more interested in characters rather than actions, so I spend time thinking of who the characters are and what they would do next. I quite like a doodled flow chart and sometimes while I’m writing I’ll do a very poor timeline. However, I suspect that’s just a part of the panoply of distraction techniques that my brain is constantly throwing at me.

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Seaside Writing Workshop: Unlock Your Creativity

Come and spend a day writing by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.

 

Interview Series #3: Meaghan Delahunt

meaghan-delahunt-1

Meaghan Delahunt is a novelist and short story writer. Born in Melbourne, she has lived for many years in Edinburgh. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Stirling and is also a qualified yoga teacher. I was trying to work out when we first met and think it must have been around 15 years ago, when she won a Saltire First Book Award for her first novel, In The Blue House, which is centred on the extraordinary true life story of Frida Kahlo’s friendship with Leon Trotsky. Meaghan’s most recent book is Greta Garbo’s Feet & Other Stories – see here for details, or her own website here.

This is the third interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

Sophy: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

Meaghan: When I first started writing creatively, I was a small child. Later, in my twenties, I started writing ‘with intent’.  There were no courses or university degrees, and even if there were, I wouldn’t have wanted to do them.  I just read and wrote and read and re-wrote. Lived and tried to pay attention to living.  I still think this is the only way, fundamentally, that you become a writer. The advice that would have been most helpful to me, if there had been someone to give me advice would have been this:  Persevere, learn to become resilient, try to learn and be positive in the face of set-backs. Often your ‘failures’ are the springboard for something new.

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

I’m a little suspicious of  ‘writer’s block.’ It always seems so melodramatic and Hollywood and far too neat a term for something much more complex.  It seems to me that ‘writer’s block’ takes different forms depending on the writer. Mostly, I think it is depression, fear and anxiety in the face of writing.  A blank page will easily conjure up all of these feelings, at some point. Often in the middle of a long piece of work you wonder if you will ever make your way out, you feel overwhelmed. Or at the beginning. Or at the end of a long piece of work, you wonder if you will have the energy and stamina for another one. You feel emptied out.  You need to feel these things, and let them go.  For me, knowing that these states of mind are ‘normal’ and that they also pass is helpful. Yoga and meditation have always been helpful to me in this regard,  in coming to know the rhythms of my own mind.  Acknowledging and making peace with ‘negative’ states of mind is the most helpful thing.  Even writing down how you are feeling on  a piece of paper and throwing this away before you start writing can be helpful. And trusting that these states are transient and that you will find your way back, towards, into the work, in your own time.

Do you write every day?

I write something most days in my journal. When I’m working on a story or a novel I would definitely write most days. When you are in the flow of something, it’s delicious, you don’t want to be anywhere else!  But when I’m between projects, or lying fallow at the end of a long project, I give myself permission not to write. I know then that I need to read and rest and do other things.

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 have so many rituals, it’s ridiculous.   I must have two cups of tea in order to even kick-start the process. I have to meditate and do yoga.  I have to light incense.  I have to wear an ear plug in my good right ear ( I’ve had complete nerve deafness in my left ear since childhood)  so that the only thing I can hear is my thoughts. I like to face a blank wall.  No matter how early I get up, and unless I am really in the flow of something, by the time I get all this done it always seems to be either 11am or 4pm in the afternoon. It’s a mystery.  I seem to work best late morning and then late afternoon or evening.  I tend to create first drafts  at my desk, or on trains, planes or buses.  But then I like to edit in cafes and other places to give me a different perspective on what I’ve done. Fortunately, apart from the blank wall, my rituals can be performed anywhere.

Have you ever kept a journal?

I kept a little exercise book as a child. My mother found this and presented it to me one day, years ago. It had all my 10-year old yearnings and poems and also some grandiose stuff from when I was 16.  I don’t know where that journal is now. But it was an eye-opener to me, that this thing had been going on a long time – the desire to write. Also, that my voice was pretty much there, from the beginning.  In my mid-20’s I decided to start writing  in a journal. I now have nearly three decades worth of journals. I never look at them, unless I need  something for a story or a novel, and can remember that I wrote something useful down. But it is a way of offloading my emotions, fears, thoughts, things overheard, scraps of dialogue, ideas and so on.  A way of processing thoughts and dreams. Especially dreams.

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

In life as in art, I am not a planner.  As a child I was always told that I was vague and dreamy.  I am not naturally organised or punctual – it takes a great deal of psychic effort for me to be either of those things.   I can’t  possibly outline a book in advance and am hopeless at writing a synopsis and I could never ‘pitch’ an idea – I don’t believe in that kind of process anyway.  When I am forced to ‘outline’ something in advance – for agents, publishers or funding bodies – I keep it as general as possible. I’m not at all interested in plot. I’m much more interested in interwoven stories, in layering, in patterns, digressions, in rhythm and counterpoint.  In the ‘mystery of personality’ as Flannery O’Connor put it.  I get an image, then some language coheres to the image, along with colours and a sense of place. It’s very visual. I start writing towards this and find out what I’m doing as I go along. I do a lot of drafts and start with what I call ‘draftlets.’  So, the first ‘draft’ of a novel, could be twenty pages or five pages.  And later those  pages could end up in the middle of the novel, or towards the end, or not at all. It’s a totally intuitive, organic process. It takes years for me to get a full first draft. I always start by handwriting, then transfer to the computer, then print everything out, read it, make handwritten comments, throw the pages on the floor,take scissors, sticky tape and post-it notes,  cut-and-paste, then back to the computer.  I do this over and over again. At each ‘draft’ I have to ‘see’ it all on the floor. It’s a very messy process, not at all efficient, but it’s my own process, worked through over decades, and there’s a comfort in that.

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Seaside Writing Workshop: Unlock Your Creativity

Come and spend a day writing by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.