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Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview Six – Matthew Plampin

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Matthew Plampins novel The Street Philosopher

The Street Philosopher by Matthew Plampin

Debut novelist Matthew Plampin brings us to number six in our series of interviews with the Waterstones’ ones to watch 2009. Matthew grew up in Essex and went to university in Birmingham, studying English and History of Art. He then went to complete his PHD at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Now lecturing in Nineteenth century art and architecture he also found time to complete his first novel The Street Philosopher.

Set in the violent back drop of the Crimean War The Street Philosopher tells the story Thomas Kitson a promising art critic who gives it all up to become a war reporter. Following in Kitson’s footsteps are his boss, a drink obsessed Irish reporter, and a sensitive young illustrator who was commissioned to follow the British Army into war. Jumping between scenes during the war and Manchester a year after the war which sees Thomas Kitson becomes the street philosopher reporting on the daily gossip. Struggling to come to terms with his war time past may scupper a budding relationship with the widowed daughter of a corrupt factory owner.

Critics celebrated Plampin’s excellent research skills brining the horrors of the Crimean war to life, drawing on his own experiences dealing with raw historical text has allowed Matthew Plampin to give the reader a realistic insight into the Crimean war whilst dealing with the ever-present issue of returning back to normality.

Matthew speaks to The Scribbler about his own influences, what inspires him and what it means to be included on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.

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

Matthew Plampin: I don’t know if that’s really for me to say. I hope that it takes a vivid and cinematic approach to historical fiction.

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?

MP: I’m a big fan of Peter Carey, particularly ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’, and will also read anything by Kate Grenville, Sarah Waters or Beryl Bainbridge. I really like modern graphic novels as well, especially those by Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes.

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

MP: All sorts of places. I read a lot of history, but also take care to utilise primary sources – Victorian newspapers, diaries, guidebooks and so on – in an effort to create an authentic feel and get the details right. Visual imagery is also very important to me. One of the first things I do is get a good map of the places I’m writing about, as well as any paintings, engravings or photographs that I come to hand. I find Victorian photography completely engrossing. The Crimean War was one of the very first to photographed, and I regularly consulted the many ghostly images taken by Roger Fenton whilst writing ‘The Street Philosopher’. This has led me to a broader interest – I’m particularly fascinated right now by the photographs taken by Lady Clementina Hawarden in the late 1850s, some of which have an eerily contemporary feel to them. I’m also frequently inspired by TV and film. Recent favourites have included ‘Deadwood’, ‘The Wire’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’.

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

MP: Not very! I actually wrote an entire novel before ‘The Street Philosopher’ that sunk without trace, which was disheartening to say the least, but it meant that I was a little more thick-skinned later on. Basically, I circulated passages of the first proper draft as widely as I could and eventually, through a friend in publishing, it found its way to my agent – who happened to be looking for new authors at the time. We then worked on a new draft of the novel together and he managed to get me a deal with HarperCollins. It took a lot of perseverance and a fair bit of serendipity.

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

MP: The main challenges of ‘The Street Philosopher’ were making the novel’s two chronological strands equally engaging; balancing grand-scale historical events such as royal ceremonies and major battles with the characters’ personal trials, triumphs and tragedies; and explaining often quite complicated history in a way that was interesting and didn’t slow down the narrative. The only way to overcome them was through hard work and extensive redrafts.

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?

MP: Mostly. There is a slight nervousness there – bits that gave me trouble that still sometimes flag up in my mind even though the issues are long since resolved. But for every wince I can usually find a few passages that I’m pretty pleased with.

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

MP: I’m actually within a couple of months of finishing the first draft of my second novel – it should be out in early 2010. Leaving ‘The Street Philosopher’ behind was hard as I’d worked on it for over four years, but starting something completely new has been exhilarating. It’s a story of intricate conspiracies and bloody betrayal set around a gun factory in 1850s Pimlico, owned and overseen by the legendary American revolver-maker Colonel Samuel Colt, and I’m enjoying writing it a lot.

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

MP: Redraft repeatedly; everything can be improved. Consider advice carefully, but don’t allow it to overwhelm or redirect what you set out to do. And get something down – a very basic point but a vital one. I’ve learned that a flawed draft you can go back to is a lot better than nothing.

TS: In your opinion what is The Street Philosopher about?

MP: In my opinion (broadly speaking and in no particular order): trauma and injustice, then redemption and revenge; different, even conflicting conceptions of duty and friendship; the complex role of the war correspondent; the corruption wrought by power – in all its forms.

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

MP: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey; ‘The Stones of Venice’ by John Ruskin; ‘Moby-Dick’ by Herman Melville; ‘Bleak House’ by Charles Dickens; ‘Romola’ by George Eliot; ‘The Golden Legend’ by Jacobus de Voraigne; ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ by Iain Pears; ‘Mason and Dixon’ by Thomas Pynchon. And too many others to list here.

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

MP: I did a PhD in Victorian cultural history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, which not only exposed me to a lot of the raw historical material that inspired the novel, but also accustomed me to solitude, the planning and researching of large writing projects, and long, long hours – all of which has proved essential.

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

MP: A great deal – it’s massively encouraging to be selected as one of twelve from such an enormous pool of entrants, and seeing the book on display in the window of the Piccadilly branch has definitely been one of the high points of the whole experience so far.

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Bellow is a video of the man himself talking to Waterstones about his book The Street Philosopher

Discussion:
So has anyone been reading The Street Philosopher? What’s your verdict? Leave your comments below

We will have more content up soon honest……

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Sorry for the lack of content recently, but moving flat and getting an Internet connection has proved most troublesome. Not to worry though I now have full access to the World Wide Web again which means Dean and I at The Scribbler HQ can continue to bring you guys more content. We will have more from the Waterstone’s ones to watch list, more entries in the Green Horn Novelist Blog, more interviews with the most exciting authors around, as well as brining you the latest goings on in the literary world.

We will have more content up soon honest……

Regards

The Scribbler Team

Written by Seamus Swords

July 22, 2009 at 12:04 pm

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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

Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview Two – Yiyun Li

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The Vagrants By Yiyun Li

The Vagrants By Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li has made it onto the Waterstones’ ones to watch list 2009 after the release of her well received novel The Vagrants.

Moving to the United States in 1996 she had work published in the New Yorker as well as winning awards and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the Whiting Foundation.

Her first collection of works, Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction.

Her most recent novel The Vagrants follows a small group in a small town during the 1970s when China was going through a social and political revolution towards a more open and free society.

In the middle of all this hype and excitement Yiyun Li took some time out to chat to The Scribbler. Read the interview below.

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

YIYUN LI: I don’t think that is a question I can answer.

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?

YL: Of the contemporary authors, I feel greatly indebted to William Trevor, whose novels and stories I read for inspiration.

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

YL: I look for situations in life (from newspapers and from conversations with people) that fascinate or baffle me, and I then go on to make up characters to explore the situations.

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

YL: I suppose I had my share of rejection letters from literary magazines, though I was fortunate enough to have a story published in The New Yorker early in my career, which helped when I signed up with the publisher.

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

YL: I write in a second language, so I am always aware that language will remain a challenge. I keep reading and writing, which seems the only way to deal with the challenge, if not to overcome it.

TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.)

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li

YL: How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it? After I finish my work I don’t think about it anymore. I am comfortable for my work to be read by the world, as by the time my words are in print I am distant enough from them.

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

YL: I have started to work on my next book, a collection of stories. I don’t find it hard to leave a piece behind. In fact, it is always a joy to leave the old behind and start something new.

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

YL: James Alan McPherson, who was my mentor when I began to write, rarely discussed the crafts of writing when I met him, but every time we met he would say to me, “Keep writing.” An I do believe that is the best advice given to me, and I would pass it on to young writers.

TS: In your opinion what is The Vagrants about?

YL: I don’t think I’d talk about a novel that way, not my books or other authors’ books.

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

YL: Many of William Trevor’s stories and novels inspired me to start writing. So has Graham Greene’s work.

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

YL: I had a science background – I was trained to become an immunologist when I gave up that career to become a writer.

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Click on the clip to see a trailer for the film adaptation of Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers

Discussion:
Discuss, promote or rant about Yiyun Li 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

The Informers trailer released

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The Informers movie poster

The Informers movie poster

The movie adaptation of The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis has finally had it’s first trailer released.

Published in 1995, the collection of loosely connected short stories captures a week in L.A. in 1983, featuring movie executives, rock stars, a vampire and other morally challenged characters in adventures laced with sex, drugs and violence.

Unfortunately the word on the grapevine is that the filmmakers have decided to omit the supernatural elements of the book from the film version.

The Informers is directed by Gregor Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers) and stars Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke, Winona Ryder, Rhys Ifans and Brad Renfro.

Already premiered at film festivals around the globe, The Informers will be released later this summer.

For all the latest information on the movie including reviews, footage, further trailers and hopefully the odd interview stay with The Scribbler.

To see the trailer click below:

Discussion:
What do you think of the trailer? It looks like the movie will do the book justice. What is your opinion? What are the best and worst movie adaptations in your view?

Words: Dean Samways

Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview One – Janice Y. K. Lee

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Janice Y.K Lees debute novel

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee has written her first novel to much acclaim, after making it onto the Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 The Scribbler has managed to secure a quick Q&A with the writer.

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.

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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.

Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee

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.

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Click on the below clip to hear an except from The Piano Teacher:

Discussion:
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

Toby Young – A Master of nothing?

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Toby Young, author of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

Toby Young, author of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

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:

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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!

The Sound of No Hands Clapping

'The Sound of No Hands Clapping'

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.

How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

'How To Lose Friends and Alienate People'

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.

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Find Toby Young in cyberspace:

Watch Toby Young interview Simon Pegg (and vice versa) for The Culture Show below:

Discussion:
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