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The Big Interview

21
Sep

Alison Moore

Q. Death and the Seaside is an intriguing novel, one that explores the relationship between reader and writer, as well as the act of writing itself. What inspired you to write it?

I’d been thinking for some time about writing a story about control and manipulation, so that’s one point of origin. Then a couple of years ago I wrote a short story called ‘The Harvestman’http://nightjarpress.weebly.com/the-harvestman.html and liked the idea of bringing the world of that short story into the novel I had started to write, drawing on the setting and the feel of that story, although the main character and the story are different.

 

Q. When Slyvia is reading Bonnie’s short story she comes away with a different interpretation and meaning than Bonnie had intended. Does it surprise you to read reviews about your own work, that bear little or no resemblance to what you had set out to do?

When I’m writing, there’s a certain amount of just trusting my instincts, and then I have to step back to see just why something – which just felt right – works, and sometimes that’s something I discover in conversation with readers. It’s not so much that an interpretation doesn’t resemble my intentions, but that the reading and discussion of the book helps me to see more clearly all the connections.

 

Q. The writer in me found those bits rather comical. Were you poking fun at academics and literary criticism?

I think the critical response to a story you’ve written can influence the way you feel and think about it. Bonnie as the writer is supposed to be in charge of her story, but here’s Sylvia deconstructing it and interpreting it before Bonnie’s even finished it. So in more ways than one, Sylvia is influencing Bonnie’s story.

 

Q. Which character did you have the most fun creating? Did she turn out the way you imagined?

Part of me wants to say Sylvia, because she surprised me – when I started writing her, I had no idea what she’d been up to. But at the same time, she wouldn’t work without Bonnie – it’s all about the dynamic between them.

 

Q. Although the novel is fairly short, you leave the reader with plenty to think about – there’s lots of psychological theory to get your head round. Was it challenging to explore the themes of mind control and free will, hallucination and manipulation amongst others without losing the reader? How did you balance the two?

It seems like it was fun, but it might be like childbirth where you forget the pain. Hopefully the theory is sufficiently woven into the narrative, supporting it rather than getting in the way.

 

Q. As the person who was ultimately in control, what was going on in the world and in your mind while you were writing?

‘The Harvestman’ came directly from a visit to Seaton in Devon in 2014. Having decided to use the same setting in my novel, I made another trip there in 2015 – we made it a family holiday, staying in a caravan for a week – to secure some further details. I was also reading or rereading the various books and stories whose depictions of the seaside have shaped Bonnie’s sense of what the seaside represents.

 

Q. Does your writing ever take a direction which surprises you?

All the time! It’s the loveliest thing, that sense of just starting somewhere – in what feels like a good place to start – and seeing what happens.

 

Q. There’s plenty going on in the space of what is a relatively short novel. Are you ever tempted to write something longer?

If the story I was writing wanted to be longer, I would absolutely press on. Perhaps this is the natural length for me, but it’s only dictated by the story and by when the story’s been told.

 

Q. Bonnie struggles to write the ending for her short story. Which do you find most challenging to write: the beginning or the ending?

I don’t start writing until I have a sense of where I can start, so there’s never a struggle to begin as such, but each stage has its own difficulties as well as its pleasures. With the beginning, the pleasure is the freedom you have when you’re beginning a novel, but it comes with the possibility that what you’re embarking on just might not work; the ending is informed by everything that’s gone before, so ideally it will just feel right, but some stories don’t give up their endings so easily – ‘The Harvestman’ didn’t until the second or third attempt, and Death and the Seaside made me work harder to find the ending than my previous two novels did.

 

Q. Finally, what advice would you give to Bonnie (and anyone else) working on a short story?

You have to get it down – often you have to write it to find it – and then stand back and see if it feels right, or what feels wrong. Let it rest for a while before looking at it again.
Alison Moore‘s first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. Her short fiction has been included in Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories. Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur.

23
Nov

Mahsuda Snaith

1. Headshot 2015

1. Tell us about your reign as the Bristol Short Story prize winner – what’s the year been like for you, and how if at all, it has helped you as a writer? What have you been up to since?

My reign came to an end when Brent van Staalduinen won the 2015 prize in October but I’ve been very happy holding up the trophy for it for the past year. Just being nominated for the Bristol Prize was an incredible boost for me as a writer, especially as I soon learnt afterwards that my agent at the time was having a career change and would no longer be representing me. Without the wins I (I won the SI Leeds Prize for my novel the week before) I don’t think I would have been as confident approaching agents again. As it was I sent my first novel to five agents, heard back from three in the matter of weeks and was able to choose who I wanted to represent me in the future.. I’ve been working with my new agent James Wills of Watson, Little on the novel for the last few months and will hopefully be sending it to editors soon.

2. You were recently published in the Closure anthology edited by Jacob Ross and published by Peepul Press. Can you tell us about the process of writing that particular story?

‘Confetti for the Pigeons’ began rather bizarrely, with me and my friend examining a pigeon in Leicester Town Hall Square one lunchtime (we named him McGraw). We said we’d write a story about the pigeon and even though I did go very off topic that was definitely the starting point of that story. Then I got to thinking about all the weddings that happened at the Town Hall and how someone could sit on the benches every week just to watch all the exiting couples. The rest of the story grew from there.

3. The collection features a diverse range of authors, from BME backgrounds but very few short stories collections are published by BME writers. Do you think more writers are breaking through or does more need to be done? Are black writers not writing?

I think whenever people say, ‘Oh this group are just not interested in so and so’ you are making massive assumptions that need to be fact-checked and not assumed. I’ve been writing with the hope of being a professional writer since I was eight so this concept that ethnic minorities aren’t writing, which I’ve heard a few times, is just bizarre to me. It’s like saying pensioners hate using the internet – that’s a whole lot of people you’re making an assumption about (and of course it’s not true!).

Being part of the anthology and part of Inscribe writers (a professional development programme for Black and Asian writers) has brought me in contact with many of the writers from the anthology and what I’ve found is a circle of hugely talented people writing about completely different subjects and all working really hard to get somewhere with their writing. It’s not a case that we aren’t writing, it’s a case that we are often not selected which brings up many questions about race and diversity in the publishing industry. So in short, yes, a lot more needs to be done!

4. Do you have a particular short story collection or writer that you find yourself going back to, reading time after time?

I have a number of short story writers I really admire: Aimee Bender, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Olive Senior are just a few. What I love about short story collections is you can choose a story from one collection one evening and read another one a year later and it doesn’t take away from the experience because they aren’t meant to be read collectively. So I don’t particularly go back to a collection and think ‘I’m going to read all these again’. It’s more a case of, ‘what was that amazing story I read about a flood?’. Then I spend the rest of the afternoon looking through all my bookshelves trying to find it!

5. Where do you write?

Our spare room is our study and that’s where I do most of my writing. However, if I’ve got a long break I find the study can soon feel like a prison so I try and branch out to coffee shops and libraries. Sometimes just writing in a different room can make me approach a project with fresher eyes than just working at the same desk all the time. I haven’t tried writing in my bed yet though, that would be dangerous.

6. Where do you get your best ideas for a short story?

Ideas are funny things because, most of the time, they don’t come fully formed. I might start writing a piece because of an image or a character or just because I want to explore a subject. I have lots of lists (mentally and literally!) of subjects and possible interesting situations and it’s when a combination of these ideas fuse together that I get my best stories. It’s a brilliant eureka moment when this happens and tends to come when I least expect it. Ideas are like fish, if you grab on too tight they either slip away or get strangled.

7. How do you switch between writing short stories – novels – and plays. Is the creative process different for you each time?

For me, writing in different forms is really what keeps me going. Starting off primarily as a novel writer I was left with big, epic pieces and the same characters for years. As much as you love your characters it’s a good idea to occasionally take a break from them! I find writing short stories and plays gives me that break while also having the added bonus of keeping my writing tools sharpened. I would say the creative process is different from project to project because you’re dealing with different narratives (and a different version of yourself of course). There’s different formatting and considerations involved as well, but ultimately it’s all writing so the process is pretty similar.

8. What makes a good short story and what makes a winning short story? How can we tell if our stories are any good?

That’s a really interesting question because I do think what makes a good short story and a winning short story are two different things. It’s easy to think when you send a story to competition that if it isn’t selected it isn’t any good but there are many brilliant short stories that are suitable for collections or anthologies but aren’t necessarily suitable for a competition. With a competition you have to remember that there’s all these other writers sending in their best work from all over the world and if you’re sending in a quiet piece with an unspecific backdrop where nothing really happens and even you aren’t sure what’s being said it will be competing against these other bold, confident, shining gems crying for attention. But those stories might still be good and I think the test comes when you go back to them in a year’s time. Does it still make you feel something? Does it create a gut reaction (that isn’t embarrassment!) and do you feel that what you wanted to express has even minimally been achieved? If the answer is yes then you know you’ve done something right. If the answer is no, work on it until you can say yes.

9. What three tips would you give to anyone entering this year’s Bristol short story prize?

1. Find your best story/write your best story, work and work and work on it, then send it! There’s many people who dream of being a writer but never get round to doing it. The key is to write something, anything, then see where you can go from them. If you have a story that is fresh and full of your best work, send it in. Even if you aren’t shortlisted you are keeping your finger in the world of writing. As Sylvia Plath said, ‘I love my rejections slips. They show me I try.” Keep trying.

2. Get better. This refers to the ‘work and work and work on it’ part of Tip 1. You need to be studying the craft of writing, reading past winners, deciding what you think a good story is and working on your writing until you are as close to that ideal as possible (you’ll never be completely there, that is our curse as artists).

3. Write something only you can write. This refers to the ‘write your best story’ part of Tip 1! Your passions and experiences are the key to your originality. Have you been in a bizarre situation that other people would love to know more about? Is there a voice that you think has been underrepresented that you feel you could write? It doesn’t have to be something you have personally experienced but at least something that you feel you can really sink your teeth into and have the conviction to complete in your own unique way.

10. And finally, what are you working on at the moment? What’s your writing goal for 2016?

As I mentioned, I’ve just finished edits on my first novel but I’ve also recently finished drafting my second novel too. I started this before any of the competition wins and am so glad I did otherwise I’d really feel the

pressure of Novel Number 2 right now! I think it’s important to keep busy with your writing so I’m now planning a play with two strong female leads and a killer plot as well as working on a couple of short stories I have been wanting to complete for a while.

In terms of goals, I set myself a few projects every three to four months (whether it be completing a draft or finishing a piece) but I’ve learnt that that big things like getting an agent, being published etc. are largely outside of my control so I try not to fixate on them. Therefore my goal for 2016 is the same as it would be for most years; get better at what I’m doing and do as much writing as I can. If I can manage that, I will be a happy bunny.

 

Mahsuda Snaith is a writer of short stories, novels and plays. She is the winner of the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2014 and Bristol Short Story Prize 2014 as well as being a finalist in the Mslexia Novel Competition 2013. Her short stories have been anthologised by The Asian Writer, Words with Jam and Closure: Contemporary Black British Stories. As well as working as a supply teacher, Mahsuda leads creative writing workshops. She has performed her work at literary festivals and really enjoys crochet, though she isn’t very good at it. To find out more visit www.mahsudasnaith.com

 

The Bristol Short Story Prize 2016 is now open for entries. The closing date for entries is midnight on April 30th, 2016. Full details.

We’ve got two copies of The Bristol Short Story Anthology to give away. Send us a tweet @LeicesterWrites or email f.shaikh@dahliapublishing.co.uk telling us why you’d like a copy of the anthology.

27
Oct

Jonathan Taylor

jonathan taylor

This month’s big interview is with Jonathan Taylor, author of Entertaining Strangers and Melissa.

Melissa is set in 1999-2000. At roughly 2pm on 9th June 1999, on a small street in Hanford, Stoke-on-Trent, a young girl dies of leukaemia; at almost the same moment, everyone on the street experiences the same musical hallucination. The novel is about this death and accompanying phenomenon – and about their after-effects, as the girl’s family gradually disintegrates over the following year.

Q. The premise of your latest novel, Melissa seems strange but intriguing – where did the inspiration for writing it come from?

It’s based on – or, perhaps, to be more specific, inspired by – a number of true events, all of which coalesced into the story. I’ll leave anyone curious enough to find out about them – I don’t want to give the game away here! Sufficed to say, I’m no mystic – my normal position is sceptical rationalist – but I have come across near-convincing instances of telepathy among people I’ve known; and they often seem associated with the most intense moments in life. For example, shortly before my grandmother died, my wife – then girlfriend – who had never met her woke up at the other end of the country and saw her sitting in the corner of her bedroom. As regards stories of collective musical hallucinations, well, there are, throughout history, documented cases of things like this happening:, as well as ‘dancing plagues’ and ‘laughing plagues’ which have spread throughout communities.

Q. What or who would you cite as influences of your work, and this novel in particular? 

Oh, all sorts of people: everyone knows how much I love writers like Dickens. But as regards this novel in particular, well, it’s probably most indebted to the wonderful work of the late, great neurologist Oliver Sacks. His books – and particularly, in this case, Musicophilia – are amazing, perception-changing neurological case studies: but they’re also stories, novels, operas, which demonstrate the many ways in which illnesses, diagnoses and treatments are also narratives.

Q. I think it was John Irving who once said his books allow him to write out his worst fears – so the death of a child, the death of a parent etc… As a parent was this a difficult subject to tackle?

Gosh, that’s a good  but tough question. There’s definitely something in what Irving says. At his most content, with two daughters, the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler wrote his song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). His wife, Alma Mahler, was understandably outraged. Shortly after, his elder daughter did die of Scarlet Fever. In retrospect, there’s something chillingly prophetic about the song cycle. Mahler’s excuse to his wife was that he didn’t choose what he wrote – it chose him, which is kind of related to the John Irving quotation: a writer’s unconscious terrors choose what he or she writes. Without being mystical about it, I do understand that point of view. Clearly, writing about the death of a daughter is incredibly painful for someone with daughters (I have twin daughters), but the book is more about the aftermath of death than death itself, something I do have experience of. And no doubt Irving has a point too, in that our twins were tiny and very ill for the first few months of their lives – and perhaps, again in an unconscious way, the novel is partly a working out of the terrors which we repressed at that time, in order to cope with things.

Q. Death is so final and absolute, a pain that is raw but grief is so personal – what were the challenges for you as a writer in capturing the complexity of this human experience?

In many ways, it’s by definition impossible to capture “death” in writing – you can only write about what comes before (as in Autobiography), or what comes after (as in many memoirs). Melissa is, as I say, primarily about what comes after: the death, from Leukaemia, of Melissa happens just before the story starts, and the story as a whole is an investigation of grief, and what happens to families (and, indeed, communities) after a terrible loss like that.

Q. Did you suffer from any blocks or doubts as you were writing? Were you satisfied with the end result?

I’m always sceptical about what’s called “writer’s block.” It’s based on a kind of preciousness, and assumes all sorts of things – for example, a Romantic model of “inspiration.” Actually, most if not all writing isn’t a matter of waiting for inspiration; it’s all about doing. No other comparable craftspeople – for instance, blacksmiths or glass-blowers – would wait for “inspiration” before carrying out a commission or task, pleading some kind of creative block. And I think writers should see themselves as craftspeople: you’re not a writer unless you actually write, and “writer’s block” is a bit of a pose.

Q. Tell us more about the novel writing process? Do you have a writing ritual, a special place to write or a favourite brew to get your creative juices flowing?

I wrote most of Melissa – at least, in first draft – at night after the twins were asleep in bed. I wrote the first draft in a huge outpouring of words – something which has never happened before or since. The idea came to me as a whole, and I had to get it down. I never want to write like that again, to be honest: nowadays, at nights, I just want to watch the Avengers and bad horror movies on TV.

Q. Where do you write?

I wrote my first novel in a shed at the bottom of our garden – quite Romantic, quite Roald-Dahl-esque. I wrote the second novel in the living room on the sofa on a laptop – very un-Romantic, I know, but more comfortable.

Q. How do you find the time to write?

I don’t, generally speaking. I have a full-time job, teaching Creative Writing at university. Or, rather, I have a full-time job filling in forms, attending committees, answering emails. The teaching and writing bits – which are the best bits – get squeezed by all the other rubbish, especially the writing. The only real writing time I get at the moment is in August; but then the twins are at home from school – and who in their right mind would choose sitting in front of a laptop instead of playing with play-doh or making cupcakes with seven-year-olds? So, increasingly, I find writing very difficult to fit in at all. I’m currently writing an academic-critical book on laughter and comedy, but only progressing at the rate of one chapter a year.

Q. You’re published by Salt – an indie press. Can you tell us a little more about how you found a publisher and the experience of working alongside Salt’s editorial team?

I think there are big benefits of being published by an independent press, the first and foremost of which is freedom. I can’t imagine there are any writers who wouldn’t like to have millions of readers, huge sales; but, as I’ve said, I’m not sure how far I choose what I write, or how much it chooses me. One’s subject matter and style arises from everything one reads and experiences – and that’s particularly the case for a writer like me, who draws on one’s own experiences for material. So publishing with an independent press means more artistic freedom, more liberty to write about subjects which might be seen as “difficult” in other areas. I’ve also found it means more personal contact with the publisher. Jen and Chris Hamilton-Emery have been wonderful – great editors, kind, and also personally caring about the books they publish. Jen is also a formidable drinker, as I know to my own cost.

Q. Finally, what advice would you give to anyone looking to write a novel and get published?

Well, that’s a big question. I think get as much advice and feedback as you can from readers and editors you trust; read as widely as you can (and not just contemporary stuff, but anything and everything, including non-fiction); meet other writers, publishers, and go to events and readings; watch out for your back, sitting so long in one place; expect it to take years and years; care about commas and apostrophes; don’t spend too much time on Facebook; listen to how people talk in different situations; try writing in lots of different forms and genres; have a short break, go to the toilet, brush your teeth, eat an apple, if you get stuck on any particular sentence.

melissa-cover-1

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007). He is editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt, 2012). He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators. Originally from Stoke-on-Trent, he now lives in Leicestershire with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk. To buy Melissa please visit Salt’s bookstore.