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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

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

Ones to read in 2009

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Richard Milward author of Ten Storey Love Song, one of Waterstones New Voices of 2009

Richard Milward author of Ten Storey Love Song, one of Waterstones' New Voices of 2009

In true eagle-eyed Scribbler enthusiasm, we have sought out – with the help of Waterstones – the writers we all need to look out for and read this year.

The high street booksellers, Waterstone’s this week announced its New Voices for 2009, the books from emerging writers that the chain believes will go on to feature in and possibly win the literary awards of the year.

Incredibly half the choices came from independent publishers, including A Kind of Intimacy, a debut by prison librarian Jenn Ashworth which is being compared to Notes on a Scandal, and Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt.

Waterstone’s fiction category manager, Toby Bourne said: “There are a huge number of novels published every year and it is very difficult to say which will strike awards gold and which will not, but we had a fantastic hit rate last year.”

Included in 2008’s selection were Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger which went on to win the Man Booker, Sadie JonesThe Outcast, which was awarded the Costa First Novel Award, and other novels that made Richard & Judy’s Book Club (bleurgh!) and other awards shortlists.

“Even more so than last year, debut fiction dominates our list, with only the precociously talented Richard Milward two novels into his career,” said Waterstone’s fiction buyer, Janine Cook, who helped choose the list.”

Ten Torey Love Song by Richard Milward, only his second book, is a novel written in a single, 286-page paragraph by the 24-year-old.

Cook went onto to say: “The writers may be new, but they have huge talent and these books deserve to compete with those from more established writers for both the attention of readers and for the big prizes.

“This is an invaluable opportunity for these authors to reach the widest possible audience. The Outcast and The White Tiger have gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies between them since inclusion in New Voices 2008, so the rewards can be very high.”

Waterstones’ New Voices will be featured in Waterstones’ stores and online at from 5 March.

The titles are:

Watch a Richard Millward talk about his New Voices of 2009 highlighted novel Ten Storey Love Song below:

So then, has anyone read any of these new offerings? Will anyone be looking into any of these books now they have received the titles of New Voices of 2009? It’s gotta be a good thing right?

Words: Dean Samways

Keep coming back to The Scribbler for interviews with the New Voices of 2009 in the coming weeks