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Archive for May 2009

Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview Five – Mari Strachan

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Mari Strachans debut novel The Earth Hums In B Flat

Mari Strachans debut novel The Earth Hums In B Flat

Mari Strachan brings us half way in our series of interviews with the authors included on the Waterstone’s ones to watch list 2009. The ex librarian whose mother tongue is in fact welsh has surprised many with her debut novel The Earth Hums In B Flat. The Independent newspaper has described her as an unlikely literary star proving that words do matter, when considered that many publishing houses want there debut novelists to resemble junior celebrities, this welsh librarian has somewhat broken the mould.

Her debut novel The Earth Hums In B Flat tells the tale of a young 11 year old girl investigating a disappearance in a small welsh town during the 1950s Managing to capture the bold yet naive voice of adolescence her young protagonist Gwenni Morgan has a keen eye for detective stories and is determined to get to the bottom of a villagers mysterious disappearance.

Mari has taken time out to talk to The Scribbler about her own influences, where she gets her ideas from and what it means to be included on the Waterstones ones to watch list.

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The Scribbler: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

Mari Strachan: I guess it’s the voice that singles out one author from among others, whatever kind of book that author is writing. It’s difficult for me to judge whether that’s true for me, but I hope that it is.

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?

MS: I enjoy reading poetry – Carol Ann Duffy (and hurray that she is the new Poet Laureate) and Gillian Clarke in English, Gwyneth Lewis in English and Welsh, and Menna Elfyn in Welsh. I love the way they use language.
I tend to draw inspiration from single novels from a variety of authors – novels like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play, Andrea Levy’s Small Island – all novels with strong main character voices, and a vivid sense of time and/or place, as well as a good story to tell.

TS: Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

MS: Ideas sneak in from all over the place in a very haphazard way – some of them are a real surprise at the moment of writing and some have been with me for a long while and re-surface when the time is right for them. My approach to a writing project is to read, think, make notes, think some more, read some more, in fact I could make that stage last forever, but at some point I actually have to start doing some proper writing, which is the point at which it becomes very hard. I’ve found that the best way for me to advance then is to write my (usually dreadful) first draft right through to the end so I have something to shape into a novel.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to a publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

MS: Very few publishers seem to accept manuscripts directly from an author, and the first step was to find an agent to act as my go-between. I did this the way most people do – trawling the internet and trawling through the authors’ handbooks that I usually managed to get as Christmas presents. I did a lot of homework in that way to see who might like and take on my novel and I was lucky to find an agent quite soon. It was then up to the agent to send the ms out to the publishers she thought might want the novel. Two publishers were interested and I chose Canongate because I liked what Jamie Byng and Anya Serota had to say about my book.

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

MS: Getting started at all is hard – I think what stops me must be the idea of committing my words and ideas to paper where they suddenly change from these wonderful imaginings to trite words and phrases that don’t do what I want them to. The only thing to do is persevere, get through that first draft, and then begin the real work of making it into a living, breathing piece of fiction. The other obstacle I’ve always had is a lack of confidence in my writing and taking a Masters degree course in Creative Writing helped me to overcome that sufficiently to carry on writing to the point of publication.

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?

Mari Strachan

Mari Strachan

MS: I still feel ambivalent about my own work – sometimes I think it works really well and at other times I feel I’ve failed miserably to achieve what I wanted with it.

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start a new one?

MS: I have started work on my second novel. I have no difficulty with leaving the finished work behind. And the difficulty with starting new work is the same as I always experience of committing words to paper.

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and what advice would you give to our budding readers today?

MS: I don’t think I’ve ever been given advice about writing. But I would say that the best advice is to just do it – I ought to take that advice myself!

TS: In your opinion what is The Earth Hums about?

MS: The Earth Hums is about Gwenni’s journey from childhood into dreaded adulthood.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?

MS: I’ve read and written since I can remember, and I think all the books I’ve ever read have influenced me in one way or another.

TS: What is your learning background and do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

MS: My first degree was in English and History, and I’ve always retained that fascination with the past, and the lessons it can teach us today if we’re willing to learn from them. I took a post graduate qualification in librarianship which kept me in the world of books most of my working life. And I recently gained a Masters degree in Creative Writing which was instrumental in giving me enough confidence in my work to seek publication, as well as giving me a good grounding in the techniques of writing fiction.

TS: What does it mean to you to be named as one of the New Voices of 2009 by Waterstone’s?

MS: Of all the accolades a writer can have, this is one of the best – prizes are nice to have, of course, but most are judged by a handful of people, whereas the New Voices are chosen by lots of Waterstone’s booksellers, people who know about books and who know what their customers like to read.

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Promote or rant about Mari Strachan or any of your favourite new writers for 2009 in the comment box below. Expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009 in the near future.

Words: Seamus Swords

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Three – Making People

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Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Something ain’t right with my novel.

The big bones are in place: the main characters, the plot lines, even the climax and denouement. Seen from a distance, it certainly looks like a novel. But up close, you can see that it’s just a simulacrum of one; it’s canvas doped over a frame, like a dummy aircraft to fool the high-flying enemy. A book prematurely abridged.

A good start, I hope: now the simple process of filling in…

Ah:  here’s the rub. It’s this close-up work, the real flesh of the story that refuses generaisations and synecdoche that I’m having trouble with. There are scraps of the real stuff, passages and pages I adore, but I am having trouble joining them into a consistent and cogent narrative.  It’s not quite firing, quickening, whatever metaphor takes your fancy to describe that mojo quality that is life.

It’s tricky. This writing, in fact, is positively hard. Those that have actually achieved this act of sustained imagination (or perhaps more accurately, these millions of small acts of imagination) ascend higher in my estimation every day.

The main problem lies with the characters.  It’s not about them yet: it’s still about events, and the characters just happen to be the vessels through which interesting happenings happen. The tension between plot and character is of course fundamental to all stories. But I want both to be vibrating, pulsating, symbiotes feeding and thriving off the other.

And the core reason for this problem? I simply don’t know my characters well enough. Even the main characters have not got the depth of history, of complexity, that makes me believe they’re real. I am often at a loss as to what a character will do in a situation, how they will speak, react, move about. I can’t hear them. Their voices are muted.

Or, if the problem is not a lack of biography, it is they have too many, all equally tempting and interesting, all antipathetic to one another.  Choosing a particular path for a character involves destruction as well as creation, the slicing away of a host of possible past and futures. Of all the shiny scraps of the world that I have collected- the interesting stories and happenings squirreled away in notebooks- only a small proportion will ever be realised in a character. Try to get too many in, and a character becomes a shapeless hold-all.

So sit your characters down and interrogate them.  Ask them fifty questions. Start off with the major biographical details: name, sex, age etc. But then range on, to favourite foods, pastimes, memories, to their hopes and fears. Concoct strange questions and situations, and see how they react. Examine their webs of relatives, friends and enemies. How do they sit within these networks? Are they popular or disliked? Powerful or downtrodden?

Physical appearance is essential. What do they look like exactly? Sketch them. Find photos that could be them.  How do they walk, and sit and laugh? What do they sound like when they talk to you? Hopefully when they answer your questions, they’ll begin speaking in their own voice, complete with their quirks of accent and idiom.

Running parallel with getting to better know our peeps, we have to make sure they are worth knowing.

A bad story, in a film, play or book, invariably lacks strong characters.  Forget the setting, the special FX or bodycount. It’s how alive the characters are, how much the audience can empathise with them (not always, please note, sympathise). We’ve got three million years of DNA programming forcing us to want to pay attention to what people are about. Even if cinema audiences bumble on about wanting to see explosions and full frontal nudity, what they would really like is that but with great characters.

So what makes a great character? A trawl through my own fiction reading, and various handbooks on writing, offers some consensus.

Falstaff, one of the greatest Shakespeare characters

Falstaff, one of the great Shakespeare characters

  • Characters should be vibrant. They push against life. Something is wrong in their lives and they set out to change it, whether an external event forced upon them or an internal problem revealed through self-examination.
  • Like real people they should be full of contrasting, even contradictory emotions.  Surprise the reader with how a character acts and reacts. Complex people are interesting people. External conflict often reveals the internal conflicts, the mental fault lines along which a character splits.  The character is forced to make choices.
  • A mix of characters brings realism and contrast. They shouldn’t be interchangeable with one another: the “Bad Guy No.4” in the credits. Humour and sadness ,  for example, whether expressed by a single person, or in a group, become sharper when next to each other.  A wacky character can act as a foil for the more realistic. Or a character can be contrasted against the environment; the city boys in the country; the airhead in a high-powered job.
  • They are often good at what they do, whether it be cutting wood or being a lawyer. Even if they are bad at something, then they are the best at being the worst.

Of course, these guidelines are by no means definitive or binding. Not all these characteristics need to be included in each of your creations. But I think they certainly provide some direction.

With the details set down in black and white, with ambiguity taken away, the characters start to have to make decisions for themselves.  These concrete details are the foundations on which intricate structures can suddenly be built. New, more subtle plot suddenly presents itself.  Cards can be placed on these foundations- and then, as time goes on these lower layers seem to harden and fuse themselves, capable to sustaining structures upon them too, all the while developing in unexpected ways.

In the light of this discussion, it is perhaps telling that my two favourite stories of the moment, Anna Karenina (read the full text here), and the various series of The Wire (The Wire dedicated Guardian Blog), use their respective equivalents of the omnipresent, omnipotent narrator to peel back the inner lives of their characters.  With the same unblinking eye, we see the conflicting, and often contradictory, emotions in all parties. All are understandable as human: all suddenly become rational beings, no longer easily summed up and dismissed by race, wealth, gender or sexuality. The reader is forced to confront the tragedy or blessing of chance: that could have been me.

Vividly imagined, vital characters can help us be better people.  To crawl, waltz, crash out of the hot confines of one’s head, and into another’s: to forget one’s body and become someone else, if only for a moment, and then to return, slightly changed, more sensitive and subtle, is magic and art itself.

Just for your information and my fun, here are my top five characters:

  1. Captain Yossarian (Catch 22 by Joseph Heller)
  2. Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) (Full text)
  3. Harriet Dufresnes (The Little Friend by Donna Tartt)
  4. William Brown (Just William by Richmal Crompton)
  5. Falstaff (Henry IV Pts. I&II, The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare) (Full texts)

Watch Captain Yossarian collect a medal in the nude below:

Discussion:
Have you been finding Richard’s posts useful? What are you going to take away from this instalment? If you’re doing some writing how have you found the obstacle of fleshing out your characters? Comments and debate always welcome below.

Words: Richard Walsh

Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview Four – Jenn Ashworth

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Jenn Asworths debute novel A Kind Of Intimacy

Jenn Asworth's debute novel A Kind Of Intimacy

Author Jenn Ashworth is the fourth writer to be interviewed by The Scribbler about being included in Waterstones’ New Voices 2009.

Her debut novel, A Kind Of Intimacy, caught the attention of the Waterstones’ critics last year and with good reason. It is a story that traces the dark possibilities of best intentions going awry. It’s not a comfortable read but then these are the kind of books that get us the most excited. It gives an unsettling glimpse into a clumsy young woman’s life who’s actions would almost certainly label her as a monster if she didn’t have so much in common with the rest of us.

Got your interest? Read the full interview with the talented Jenn Ashworth below then leave a comment in the discussion box. Enjoy!

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The Scribbler: What does it mean to you to be recognised as a New Voice of 2009 by Waterstones?

Jenn Ashworth: It’s very exciting. It’s especially flattering because this is a promotion that involves front-line booksellers reading, reviewing and choosing the promoted books – not publishers paying for them. As a debut novelist with a smaller publisher, that’s levelled a playing field I might not otherwise have had a turn on.

TS: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

JA: I think that’s something you’d have to ask my readers. Most have remarked on the uncomfortable mix of comedy and near-tragedy in my writing – not only this novel, but also in the short stories that I publish online. As far as I know, A Kind of Intimacy is the first novel to have ever given the sea-side town of Fleetwood, Lancashire to the world, either. I’d love to be corrected if I’m wrong.

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?

JA: I’ve just finished reading Ray Robinson’s first novel – Electricity, which I really enjoyed. I also have a lot of respect for my friend Chris Killen, who’s novel The Bird Room was published recently. I think he and I come from very different places as writers, and yet both have a dark sense of humour that comes across in our work. Generally though, my inspiration doesn’t come from books, it comes from people.

TS: Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

JA: In the past when I’ve been asked this I’ve said something faintly sarcastic about the ideas tree in the bottom of my garden. My polite answer would be something to do with wanting to explore certain themes and issues that are important to me on an emotional level I’m not really able to verbalise. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I knew I wanted to write about feeling odd and lonely and not quite involved with the world before I started seeing a woman who looked a bit like Annie on the bus in to work in the morning. I worked in a library and when an American self help book called The Surrendered Wife appeared on my trolley, other ideas started to appear. Hard work and seven drafts over two and a half years brought it all together.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

JA: I first began writing when I was ten or twelve, and didn’t have any idea about finding a publisher back then. The process of signing with Arcadia was the usual one – handled by my agent who submitted the manuscript on my behalf to a few editors he thought would appreciate Annie’s strange character. I did an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University, and although the camaraderie and the feedback certainly helped me stay motivated and to consider myself as a writer, I wouldn’t say that I made magical contacts there that helped with the search. I’ve since heard that Annie terrified one of the editors at Arcadia, which makes me smile.

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

JA: The biggest obstacle is my own laziness and cloudy thinking. I’d love to be ten times cleverer than I really am. I can feel what I want to say, but can’t catch hold of it sometimes. That’s terrible. I make lists though, and I have a black board to write down words that come to me in the night, and I don’t have a television and try not to go out or socialise too much so I don’t get distracted. The Internet is a big distraction. The instant gratification of online publishing is becoming a barrier to the slow progress of writing a novel. I might need to get rid of it. The internet, not the novel.

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?

Jenn Ashworth

Jenn Ashworth

JA: I like the novel – I’m not ashamed of it. I didn’t read it while it was being submitted because I was working on something else, and now the only time I look at it is when I’m asked to do readings. I’m just finished with that one now, and onto something that’s got more of my attention. I suppose I’ve moved on, although I can still see what I saw in her at the time!

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

JA: I have started it, and I expect to be finished fairly soon. I think. I hope. It took a year and a couple of false starts and lots of experiments with short stories before I felt ready to write another novel. I needed to read a lot, and rest. Fill up the tank again, maybe. It is going well now, although finding the time is a constant struggle. And so often, when I have the time the inclination is absent. I feel bad complaining though. I’m well aware it isn’t a proper job, because I’ve got one of those too.

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

JA: Andrew Motion told me to just write down what happens. I was asking him about some tortuous, self inflicted, silly problem I was having with tense, or point of view, or the Russian doll effect you get when you try to take into account the narrator’s circumstances while they are narrating. Whinging about it, I think, and he very politely told me to just write down what happens. I took it to mean that sometimes you can be too clever, and that it helps to forget most of what you learned during your undergrad degree.

TS: In your opinion what is A Kind of Intimacy about?

JA: I think its about trying to start again and, perhaps through no fault of your own, not quite being able to manage it.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?

JA: None of them in particular. I wrote more than I read when I was younger. It’s only since I started making sure that it is the other way round that my writing got any better.

TS: What is your learning background? And do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

JA: Well, I have an English degree which I don’t think helped too much – although I do love being able to read as well as I can, and the very rigorous and old fashioned way I was taught is, I think, responsible for that and suited me very well. The Creative Writing MA was an experience I wont forget or regret, but I’m still not exactly sure what kind of effect it has had on my writing. As I’m writing this second novel I am half missing the regular support of my classmates, and half glad that I’m writing without stablisers now.

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Discussion
Promote or rant about Jenn Ashworth 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: Dean Samways

Waterstone’s New Voices 2009 – Interview Three – Amanda Smyth

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Amanda Smyths debute novel Black Rock

Amanda Smyth's debute novel Black Rock

Amanda Smyth has been included on the Waterstone’s ones to watch list 2009, after her debut novel Black Rock was well received by critics. The Independent book reviewer Lesly McDowell labelled Smyth’s story as “a powerful, authentic one” describing the protaginest Celia as “an appealing, earthy, yet spiritual heroine who grows, wounded and embattled, through the course of the book.”

Amanda’s has sited her own Trinidadian roots as being a big influence on her, and after completing an MA in creative writing at UEA in 2000, her short stories were published in New Writing and London magazine as well as being broadcast on radio 4 as part of a series called Love and Loss. After having a number of short stories published Amanda Smyth received an Arts Council Grant for her first novel Black Rock.

Taking time to talk to The Scribbler Amanda discuses becoming published, where she gets her ideas from and what struggles she faced with her debut Novel Black Rock.

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The Scribbler: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

Amanda Smyth: Gosh, that’s not a question for me to answer, I think. There’s a great deal of wonderful international writing out there. Perhaps the only thing I might have to offer that’s a little different is the location. My novel is set in Trinidad.

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?

AS: I really enjoy reading Jhumpa Lahiri, Jamaica Kincaid, Richard Ford

TS: Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

AS: Black Rock was originally inspired by a true story that came from my childhood. My great grandfather was murdered in Trinidad in 1950s, and I began Black Rock with the idea of writing about this event. I strayed very faraway (!) but that was the first seed of thought.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

AS: Initially I wrote short stories, and after graduating from Creative Writing MA at UEA, I was lucky enough to quickly find an agent, and there was some interest in a collection. Twice I came close to getting the stories published as a whole, but then the possibilities fell through. It was tough. I was advised to get on and write a novel. At the time, I was very in to Jean Rhys, and I remember reading a quote about novel writing from her letters: “All you have to do is start it, get on with it, and finish it.” So this is kind of what I did! And yes, it wasn’t easy finding the right publisher, but it did all come together in the end.

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

AS: I think we all have blind spots, in one way or another. Learning to take criticism from people who know more than me was a big thing. There were moments when I’d feel defensive around feedback. But I think I really learned how to *hear* it, and learn from it and move on. That was so important – in order to get better.

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?

AS: Yes, I think so. I know when I’ve tried to take a short cut, and there’s just no point in it. Why kid yourself.

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

AS: I have something stewing… And yes, I think it can be difficult, especially if you’re still involved in the current book with readings etc.

Amanda Smyth

Amanda Smyth

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

AS: Always assume your reader is much brighter than you are.

TS: In your opinion what is Black Rock about?

AS: It’s a coming of age story.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?

AS: In my early days of writing, I think I wrote things down as a way of trying to understand them.

TS: What is your learning background?, and do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

AS: I wanted to act when I was young, and did bits of TV, commercials, theatre work, so I didn’t bother going to university. As long as I had an equity card I could get work. But then I met a writing teacher/poet/journalist in Trinidad while I was living there. I went to his workshops every week and learned as much as I could. He changed my life. Then I came back to UK and applied to UEA to do the MA in Creative Writing. I found some of the academic work challenging, but the creative writing workshops were terrific.

TS :What does it mean to you to be named as one of the New Voices of 2009 by Waterstones?

AS: This was just wonderful, especially when I saw the other selected novels. And last year’s list was terrific, too. It’s a great honour.

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Discussion:
Promote or rant about Amanda Smyth 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