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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 One, Part One – Where does a story start?

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Richard Walsh is writing his debut novel. A colleague and friend of the editor, Richard is going to be producing a greenhorn novelist blog exclusively for The Scribbler for the foreseeable future.

During the series he will discuss his experiences in the industry so far including communication with publishers, agents, the processes of writing, developing ideas, nurturing characters and will touch on every aspect of the craft.

In this, the first part of blog post number one (Richard was so keen to do what comes naturally he wrote a lot more than anticipated. Not that his enthusiasm is a bad thing – Ed), he talks about how the idea for his first novel came about and how much it has already progressed. As more posts are published the more he’ll reveal about life as a working novelist.

Please read, enjoy and feel free to comment. Richard will be on hand to answer any questions, comment on your responses and generally be open for discussion on what he’s written.

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The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post One, Part One

Richard Walsh in Vorovoro, Fiji

Debut novelist Richard Walsh in Vorovoro, Fiji

Where does a story start?
Thirty thousand words deep, this is the story of how mine began. Seeing as its incipient ideas have been rattling inside me for the last three or four years, quite possibly in the least efficient and effective way possible. It’s been a protracted labour. I hope I’m entering the final trimester. Epidural, anyone?

Ravelled in with that question, because this is my first novel, is the question of where does a writer start?

I can’t claim the title of writer yet, I think. I am, I hope, a work in progress. My credentials:  I’ve written a few short stories, I’ve an MA in Creative Writing, and it’s what I spend almost all my spare time doing. So, then, these reports are not from a published sage, but rather an ink-spattered greenhorn. Dispatches from the front line, with an aim to providing comfort, advice and warnings.

So, beginnings.
Four years ago, when I was living in London, I started playing a game. I would ask myself questions about people on buses, in the street, in shops: what’s his story? Where is she from, and where is she going? Does she regret that tattoo? Were they happy when they got up this morning? Will they still be happy when they go to bed tonight? The most incidental of objects or occurrences could be the spark for an extended reverie: a torn-off pigeon wing on the pavement, a rag of bright flesh still adhering to the feathers; a woman stepping from the dentist with half her face drooping as if struck by a stroke.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer back then. Although I’d always read voraciously, the thought had simply never occurred to me. I didn’t have a degree in English or Drama; I’d studied Geography. Interesting enough, but not one that had ever raised notions of future literary greatness. To be a writer you had to be born to it, or selected in infancy, fed with regular dollops of bookish royal jelly so I had a proper life. I even got a proper graduate job. That first morning, when I walked to work over London Bridge in the dawn with the grey tide of commuters, I was filled with pride and excitement.

By noon I hated it
I loathed it with an intensity that shocked me. I stuck it for a few months, and spent a miserable winter trying to work out what the hell I was going to do. I think the daydreams were some kind of defence mechanism, a pressure valve. As I became more and more frustrated and unhappy with the direction my life was going, they played more frequently. I was haunted by them. Multi-sensory visions, fat with smells, textures, sounds, emotions, on public transport, at dinner, in the middle of the night, in the shower.

Finally, I bowed and cracked. I started writing down these scenes, and turning them into short stories. I discovered I was quite good- not great, but not horrific- and, more importantly, I loved it. I didn’t just have to read: I could write.

I quit the proper job. I went back to my home town. I enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing. A year when all I did was write and read and talk writing with like-minded people; for me, quite magical.
It was during this time that the ideas that would form my current novel began to appear. They came as a series of visions, or even a feeling in the gut, rather than springing from a central question or dilemma, which were the usual starting points for previous stories. A girl in a tower, high above a city. An old man running through crowded streets. Wading birds probing mud, and the sun coming up above the Atlantic. Brief, vivid, fleshy vignettes playing in my mind.

The problem was I didn’t have a central story or question. All I had were characters and places in search of a story. They exasperated in their tenuousness. All this golden straw and no baler-twine. I knew the place and the time. I knew who. I didn’t know what or why. I tried out different stories. None did the feeling justice. What did these characters want? What was the question? Nothing worked.

In the end, I buried that novel, and turned my attention to other stories and projects. It was only in March last year, that the story clawed its way back to daylight.

Words: Richard Walsh

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Tune into The Scribbler next week for the second part of Richard Walsh’s greenhorn novelist blog, part one.

Watch Guardian Fiction and Booker Prize winner Ben Okri talk about his approach to writing below:

Discussion:
Have you got any ideas you want to develop into a story? Got a question for our blogger? Comment, discuss and ask away using the comment below.