Archive for March 2009
This interview is the first in a series in which we hope to talk to all the nominated writers competing for the Waterstones award.
Impressing many publications from the intellectual New Yorker to fashion magazine Vogue, Janice Y. K. Lee has managed to impress some of the harshest critiques with The Piano Teacher, a tale of love, passion and survival in 1940s and 50s Hong Kong.
+ + + + +
THE SCRIBBLER: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?
JANICE Y. K. LEE: I think that people like to be transported in a novel, and 40s and 50s Hong Kong is sufficiently far away from most peoples’ worlds that they feel as if they are travelling and learning a little bit. The Piano Teacher has been described as an historical epic and an epic love story and I think both of those appeals to readers.
TS: As a New Voice of 2009 you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?
JYKL: I do read mostly contemporary writers, partly because I want to support writers working now and also because it is the closest to my heart. I think Shirley Hazzard and Michael Ondaatje are amazing. Also Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides. I could go on and on.
TS: Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?
JYKL: I don’t know that I “lift” them as much as they come floating up to the conscious part of my head. I’ll be thinking about many things, and some will keep coming back, or be resonating for a reason I cannot figure out. I was interested in a long time by people who steal, people who one would never think would do such a thing. This found its way into short stories, characters I would write about, and eventually found its way into the book. TPT started as a short story about an English piano teacher and her young Chinese student. From there, the characters really led me to their story.
TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?
JYKL: I have an unusual story, which will probably not be that helpful, unfortunately. My teacher from grad school, Chang rae Lee, introduced me to my agent, and she took me on the basis of my short stories but she really encouraged me to write a novel. It took me a while, but after 5 years, I had my novel. She was always very encouraging of it and because I took so long to make sure it was right, it was in good shape by the time I finished it. From there, she sent it out and there were a lot of interested parties and it ended up going to auction. I had a lot of rejection during my 20s with my short stories, but luckily, with this novel, it was a fairy tale sort of story.
TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?
JYKL: I think writing a first novel, in particular, is difficult as you are writing in obscurity, you are likely not making any money, and people often don’t know what to make of you. All I can say is that you just have to believe in yourself, and in your book, and keep on.
TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.) How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it?
JYKL: I haven’t read the book through since it came out. I don’t know when I’ll do that. I do flip through sometimes, and read a passage, and usually I will like it. I suppose that’s pretty good!
TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?
JYKL: Writing a second book is awfully difficult as well! I feel there is a certain expectation as to the kind of the book I will write, and I’m trying hard to let that feeling go and write what I want to write. I think I have successfully left TPT behind but it’s just trying to get to that new place right now.
TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?
JYKL: Treat writing like a job. It is a job and you have to work very hard at it. It is not always some romantic life of late nights and wine and talking about one’s process (that may come afterwards! or before!). You have to sit at that desk and write.
TS: In your opinion what is The Piano Teacher about?
JYKL: I think it’s about Claire (the book’s piano teacher), but I’ve been argued down to the ground about that. Others think it is about consequences of actions made under duress, east meets west, wartime. But I’ll stick to my guns and say it’s about Claire’s journey as a person.
TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?
JYKL: Any of the books written by the writers I mentioned above will move me and make me want to write. They have a way of surprising readers, using words differently, illuminating character, that make one pause and savour the language.
TS: What is your learning background? And do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?
JYKL: I went to university and studied English and American Literature which was certainly helpful. I did an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing which was helpful insofar as it gave me time to write in a community of people who were doing the same thing.
+ + + + +
Click on the below clip to hear an except from The Piano Teacher:
Please take this chance to discuss, promote or rant about Janice Y.K Lee or any of your favourite new writers for 2009, and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.
Words: Seamus Swords
To celebrate the DVD and Blu-Ray release of ‘How To Lose Friends and Alienate People’, The Scribbler talks to the author of the book that became one of the funniest movies of last year.
In an exclusive interview Toby Young talks about how he got into writing, what nurtured his talent and how the transformation from book to film transpired.
Enjoy our little chat with one of the most sought after writers of the twenty-first century below and leave a comment:
+ + + + +
THE SCRIBBLER: When, where and how did you first discover your flair for writing, and how was it nurtured early on?
TOBY YOUNG: Both my parents were published authors so, for me, writing a book wasn’t a particularly huge leap. Growing up, it was always something I thought I’d do. In addition, my father was always quite encouraging. From a very early age he used to tell me that I was a natural writer.
TS: What was it about working on The Danube that drove you to follow a career in journalism when you were, at the time, studying very different subjects?
TY: I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics as a student — a subject known as PPE — and that is considered a typical degree for a journalist to take. I think a more pertinent question is why I didn’t go into current affairs journalism, why I tend to do the softer, more personal stuff, and that was something I fell into by accident. It was just easier to get published on the features page than the op ed page and, having come up that route, that’s the path I’m still on. But as I get older I find myself drifting more towards news and current affairs.
TS: You mentioned that as you get older you feel drawn to current affairs, how has that transition in writing styles and subjects been for you?
TY: I just mean that I enjoy appearing on programmes like Newsnight and Question Time – not that it happens very often!
TS: Can you describe the move you made from journalism to fiction writing? What differences exist between the two disciplines in terms of having to change your methods? Did you come across any difficulties and how did you overcome them?
TY: I’ve published very little fiction. My two books – ‘How To Lose Friends and Alienate
People’ and ‘The Sound of No Hands Clapping’ – are both non-fiction.
TS: While your two books are non-fiction some creativity must have gone into them, even if it was just finding ways of making scenes sound as colourful as possible. How did you approach writing books like that? Are they not just mammoth features?
TY: I’ve read quite a few books on screenwriting and done Robert McKee’s screenwriting course a couple of times. I found that very helpful when it came to writing books. I think the principals of storytelling are universal, regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.
TS: How did ‘How To Lose Friends and Alienate People’ come about? Can you briefly describe the writing process of such an auto-biographical book. Was it as much fun writing it as it is reading it?
TY: I worked on the proposal for ‘How To Lose Friends’ for a couple of years, but, after I’d sold the book on the back of that, it only took me about six months to write. I’m not sure “fun” is the right word to use. Hunter S Thompson said, “I suspect writing is a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.”
TS: To the majority of readers it would appear you’ve led quite the lifestyle. How do you intent to follow your two books? Do you think you’ll have to turn to fiction to convey the same messages and humour?
TY: Well, my life is certainly less exciting now that I’m married and have four children. I want to write more fiction, but it’s hard finding the time between all my other commitments.
TS: During the film making process of HTLF&AP was it difficult to let some of the book go in the production reasons? How much input did you have in the process?
TY: No, I didn’t find that at all difficult. William Goldman, the novelist and screenwriter, once told me that a writer has to learn how to murder his babies, but that came naturally to me. The producers of the film were initially a little wary of me because they thought I’d fight to preserve every last scene in the book, but when they realized I wasn’t going to do that they were much more open to my suggestions. I knew that if the book was going to be turned into a film it would have to be very different.
TS: Are you happy with the finished piece? Has is inspired you to do a bit of screenwriting?
TY: Yes, very happy. It’s a very entertaining film. On the screenwriting front, I caught that bug about twenty-five years ago and I’m still plugging away. Being involved in the making of a film hasn’t put me off in the slightest.
TS: As the hype over HTLF&AP the movie pipes up again with the release of the DVD what are your plans for the future?
TY: I’d like to keep writing books, plays, movie scripts, etc, but be paid a lot more for doing it.
TS: You’re a bit of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to writing. Which discipline do you enjoy dabbling in the most and why?
TY: I like comedy writing the best, particularly devising comic scenes. If you can pull that off, it’s very satisfying, particularly when you hear people laughing in the theatre or the cinema.
TS: I was able to contact you quite freely without having to go through publicists or PR. Do you usually work with them? For the budding writers out there, what are the pros and cons of working with such professionals?
TY: I worked with a PR company on How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, but generally speaking I don’t. As far as I can tell, the only advantage of forcing people who want to interview you to go through a PR company is that they take you more seriously.
TS: The Scribbler is dedicated to inspiring and advising would-be writers to get their material published. What is the best piece of advice you could give them, or you have ever been given concerning your work?
TY: When I was about 19 I bumped into Clive James at an airport and told him what a big fan I was of ‘Unreliable Memoirs’. He reciprocated by giving me a piece of advice that I’ve found very useful: Keep it personal. The important thing is to find your own voice, to write in a style that is unique to you. Once you can do that, the rest is easy.
TS: Just how personal are you prepared to go in your writing? How much of yourself do you dare put into your work?
TY: I like to think I’m pretty open and honest, but it is easy to delude yourself about just how open and honest you’re being. That is to say, many people who write about themselves and their reactions to things claim to feel what they think they ought to feel, but which, in reality, they don’t. I don’t think they’re being straightforwardly deceptive – it’s more that the lies they tell themselves spill out on to the page — but it still has the smell of dishonesty about it. The really hard thing about personal writing is to be completely faithful to who you really are and not pretend to be the person you think you ought to be.
TS: What you up to at the moment?
TY: I have a few irons in the fire, but experience has taught me not to talk about anything until you’re ready to unveil it before the public because, so often, these projects come to nothing.
+ + + + +
Find Toby Young in cyberspace:
Watch Toby Young interview Simon Pegg (and vice versa) for The Culture Show below:
Are you a fan of Toby Young’s writing? Does the movie do HTLF&AP justice? Post your views, comments and start discussions in the comments box below.
Words: Dean Samways
Celebrated creator of the much loved hit US police drama The Wire (The Guardian’s live blog on all five series) has returned to his journalistic roots to investigate crime in Baltimore, the setting of the HBO series.
Writer and journalist David Simon was reportedly unhappy with the Baltimore Sun‘s coverage of a police shooting which reported that “one old police reporter [Simon] lost his mind and began making calls” following a handful of unsatisfactory stories.
You would have thought the Baltimore police would have learnt it’s lesson after five series of The Wire but Simon was denied the face sheet of the shooting report.
David Simon said: “I tried to explain the Maryland statutes to the shift commander, but so long had it been since a reporter had demanded a public document that he stared at me as if I were an emissary from some lost and utterly alien world. Which is, sadly enough, exactly true.”
Have a look see what Charlie Brooker thinks of The Wire below:
Has the Wire inspired anyone to try their hand at screenplay writing? Does anyone enjoy writing about crime, and why? Let us know what you think of The Wire.
Words: Dean Samways