The Blog Tour

So, the Blog Tour has found its way to my page. Unlike Bob Dylan’s never ending tour which only features Bob Dylan, the Blog Tour is kind of like Radio 4’s Chain Reaction except without the live audience and with zero interaction between interviewer and interviewee. Thanks to Simon Sylvester for nominating me to continue the chain in this direction (you can read his answers here). I’ve mentioned Simon a few times on these pages but another plug can’t hurt. His debut novel The Visitors will be published by Quercus Books in June 2014. Buy it, it’s amazing. I’m looking forward to reading the answers his other tagged writer, David Hartley, has posted. Next week I’ll be followed by Chris Beckett and Alan Robertshaw. More details below.

So, without appearing all Jimmy Rabbitte interviewing himself in the bath, here we go:

What am I working on?

Everything and nothing. I’m in that frustrating and freeing period known to all creatives as ‘between projects’. I recently finished editing my novel, First Time Solo, and until it’s been through proofing, I can more or less regard it as done. I also finished drafting Silma Hill, a Scottish Gothic horror novel, sort of Justified Sinner meets The Crucible. It’ll be off to my agent soon for a much needed hard slap from reality. Which leaves me with the difficult third book. A few ideas are pushing for space, a number of voices shouting to be heard, but I’m nowhere near lift off. So it’s mostly short fiction, non-fiction and other projects.

When I write a novel, I tend to stay clear of all other fiction projects. Over the 18 months or so a folder of ideas and fragments builds up. At times like these that folder comes out and receives a vigorous rummaging. Most ideas end up as flash fiction or 3000-ish word stories. The odd one or two make it into something longer (Silma Hill came from this folder). Some morph into weird things (one idea seems to be turning into a manga story). Just now I’m having a damned good rummage.

First Time Solo, which is about trainee RAF pilots in 1943, involved a lot of research and from that research a couple of interesting strands emerged which I’m planning to turn into articles or something bigger, maybe even a radio piece. I’d love to get involved in radio, particularly doing the kind of fascinating programmes Louise Welsh does for the BBC like Welsh’s Scottish Journeys and her recent radio essay on James II. Brilliant radio. As a result I downloaded some software and I’m having a grand time pressing buttons and recording noises, learning what sounds good and what sounds like an idiot with a microphone.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Genre. Hmm. Simon Sylvester, when nominating me said “I’m especially eager to see his thoughts on genre.” This is because Simon and I have regular discussions on the subject. Not all of them polite.

My problem isn’t genre, my problem is the apparent walls built by readers, publishers, book sellers and writers. A story by way of illustration. Alistair Braidwood, of the excellent Scots Whay Hae podcast, while professing to be a huge fan of Iain Banks, whom he considers to be one of the most important Scottish writers of the latter 20th Century (something I agree with), said he hadn’t really read his sci-fi stuff (this is paraphrased from the podcast on Iain Banks). What would make someone not bother reading half of their favourite writer’s output? Our ideas of genre, that’s what. The very words ‘sci-fi’ can turn your favourite writer into something suspect. I mean look at the hassle Margaret Atwood had for daring to write speculative fiction.

It’s a cliché for every artist to say “you can’t pigeonhole me” and that labeling can help people find what they’re looking for, but I think we’ve reached a point where it does more harm than good (in books, I mean – technology has broken down the barriers that used to exist between genres in music but so far e-books are as segregated as their paper forebears). Louise Welsh, also on the Scots Whay Hae podcast, said that having a genre label can help a writer. When faced with thumbnail after thumbnail on Amazon, or spine after spine in your local bookshop, a bit of guidance can be good. I see that, but I also think for every reader helped by “crime” or “fantasy”, another potential reader is put off.

To be like Tarantino, or Primal Scream, changing with every release. First Time Solo is my war novel. Silma Hill my horror. I want to do sci-fi, literary realism, magical realism, hyper-modernism, crime, all of it. Obviously my agent and publisher will have fits when they read this. It’s a guaranteed way of losing a readership, apparently. You need a demographic.

I’m aware I’m not really answering the question, so like a student answering a question on MacBeth when he’s only read Hamlet, I’ll attempt a jerky link.


First Time Solo is, I guess, literary realism. Some have called it historical fiction which is hard to argue against (though watch me try) – after all it is fictional and set in a period of history. But then other than fantasy and SF, which book isn’t? I take Historical Fiction to be fiction concerned with history, not fiction that happens in history. Take the most obvious example, Hilary Mantel. One of her expressed aims is to imaginatively fill in the blanks history has left us, to bring to life one of history’s more interesting and mysterious actors. I have no such aims. No one in my book ever existed. I am not bringing anything new to light. I am focusing on character types and situations that are less well covered (a comparative term considering the sheer weight of wordage spent on WW2), but nothing ground-breaking. I would argue that if the only qualification a book needs to be historical fiction is to be set in a period of history and to deal with real historical events, then Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs, Pack Men and Skagboys are all historical novels and should have as many features about them in the BBC History Magazine as Hilary Mantel has.

Look at that: I still haven’t answered the question.

Why do I write what I do?

Why do I write what I do? I’m going to dodge the “because it’s all just bursting to get out of me, these stories that must be told” cliché and its dubious images and answer this way: It took me a very long time to find out what I wanted to write about.

I always wanted to write. First I wrote adolescent sub-grunge songs. Then I wrote nauseating adolescent poetry. Then I wrote MOR poetry. Then I decided prose was for me. I’ve always loved stylists and modernists. The writers I want(ed) to emulate – Joyce, Woolf, Amis, Rushdie, Kerouac, Mitchell, Smith, Kundera – put as much, if not more emphasis on style, structure, voice as story. An example – one of the strongest guiding rules for writing I have comes from Martin Amis: never start two paragraphs on the same page with the same word. It looks horrible. It looks like you have a tiny vocabulary.

As advice for writers go, that’s pretty small stuff. That it is so burnt into my mind is proof of how focused I was on ‘how’ and not ‘what’. Took me a long time to realise the ‘what’ was kind of important too.

David Mitchell said once in an interview that writers spend their twenties accumulating experience and knowledge and their thirties writing about it. That seems fair enough to me. I found out that I want to write about alienation, marginalisation and identity by experiencing it when I moved to Japan in my mid-twenties. I don’t just mean I experienced those things here, I mean moving gave me perspective on those issues I’d never have grasped otherwise.

How does my writing process work?

This kind of ties in with the previous answer. I tend to start from a question, a theory, an idea I want to explore. Someone said (Kundera, I think, but I can’t find the quote) that the novel is a tool for exploring questions and not for answering them. A story is not simply a story, it’s a means by which some of those never answered questions about identity and self can be examined. The form and structure of the novel is a perfect Petri dish for “an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become” (Kundera, The Art of the Novel). For many more sensible writers, themes arise out of the story. Not me. I have to do everything backwards and difficult: I have to know what I want to talk about before I build the world and the people that will do the talking.

I don’t recommend this, by the way, it’s merely a report of the way my mind works. Reverse engineering causes a lot of headaches.

To take this out the abstract for a moment. One of my prospective novels, at the moment called Burn Your Flags, started from this thought: what is it like to not belong to any culture? To be rejected as ‘other’ by groups you’re labelled as being part of? Who experiences that kind of rejection? Mixed-race children in Japan, that’s who. So, I want to write about a mixed-race person in Japan. From there I build a character and a world. Once she (in this case) exists and can walk and talk, then I find out where she’s going. That’s when story comes in. The mistake I made in the past was to think I could now begin writing. Bad idea. Many words go in the bin that way. Now I make sure I have a map in front of me and a lot of coffee.

At the moment I’m very lucky. I’m self-employed and I’ve managed to manipulate my schedule so that Tuesday to Friday I have the morning and early afternoon entirely free. That’s my writing time. I sit at the kitchen table (within easy reach of the kettle) and write for 45 minutes, take a 15 minute break, and so on until lunchtime or time for paid work. If I’m drafting plot I tend to fly on writing “and then and then and then” in an endless stream of drivel; if it’s dialogue I’ll wander around talking to myself; if it’s editing I email the file to my Kindle and read off that – for some reason the shift of screen makes me catch things that pass by on the laptop. I never print, it’s such a huge waste of resources, all those trees hacked down so I can catch a renegade comma. Literary journals who don’t accept email submissions, take note: you are doing more harm than good. It’s just you and Jeremy Clarkson left.

There you go. The next names on the back of the Blog Tour t-shirt are Chris Beckett and Alan Robertshaw. Their posts should be up on February 10th. I’ll let them introduce themselves in their own words:

Chris Beckett lives in Cambridge, England, and has worked as a social worker, a social work manager and a lecturer in social work. He has published three novels, two short story collections and many short stories in magazines and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. He won the Edge Hill Short Fiction Award in 2009 for his short story collection The Turing Test. His current novel, Dark Eden, published in the US by Broadway Books in April 2014, won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2013.

Alan Robertshaw: I was born, in the last months of WWII, in Wallasey on Merseyside, and grew up in a town scarred by bombs and gun emplacements. In the 1970’s I wrote a handful of titles for Edward Blishen’s Piccolo Adventure Library. I’ve two novels in print – The Edge of Things, published by Xlibris; and Slow Furies. More recently I discovered The Boy and the Mountain among my set-aside papers from the 70s, and since it seemed far too good to waste, I re-worked it and wrote a sequel. Both are for adolescent / young adult readers, and a third volume is gestating. The Boy and the Mountain is available on Kindle.

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