How did you come to write for CafeLit?
How did you come to write for CafeLit?
One thing is sure; you can’t help being talented. I was very careful when I taught Creative Writing in Higher Education never to award marks for talent. Or at least very few. There was perhaps one little bit of one of our mark descriptors that might recognise talent and even then it was awarding marks for how well it had been used rather than it just being there.
This discussion probably feeds into the debate about whether writing can be taught or not.
What is art anyway? There is something about intuition here isn’t there? Telling a story becomes a little like clay-modelling. You find a basic shape than you add to it, subtract form it and reform it until you know it’s right. Or do you rather abandon? Christopher Voguer studied over 10,000 screen plays and found a formula that worked for stories. But he admitted that they worked better if the creator of the story didn’t adhere too rigidly to the suggested pattern but skewed it a little.
Yes you can learn a lot of skills that make the writing work better. You can learn how to assign dialogue so that you’re not always using the word “said”. You can learn to write with the senses. You can learn to recognise a cliché and avoid it. And thousands more.
Christopher Vogler has analysed stories. So have Christopher Booker, Joseph Campbell, Robert McKee and Vladimir Propp. And so have many other people. Now the neuroscientists are even looking at our brains as we create and consume stories to see what is going on. Does the Golden Ration and Fibonacci series come in to this?
So where does this leave talent. That thing you can’t help possessing? Is talent alone ever enough? Quite probably not. Might it be defined as doing all of the above easily and enjoying doing it? Do some very talented people fail at the first hurdle because they don’t understand the science of what they’re doing, don’t put in the hours on the craft, or indeed overdo both of these things and leave no room for the art?
Do we in fact need a little of all of these factors in order to write well?
Moi? I thought, hiding behind my limited French. Surely, Gill James can’t be serious. Does she really want me to appear on her blog? I’m not even on Facebook. Never set foot on Instagram. Nor on Twitter. But I was flattered. Perhaps I could learn? I could describe how I first had a story accepted by Bridge House, going back to my somewhat lengthy reply to her request for personal information, which, I’m sure, must have been so beside the point that she gave up after the first few sentences. Would she really want more of that?
Her reply put me wise. Hold it, it said, if not in those words - almost having come to consider myself a writer, I tend to fabulate. She introduced a number of questions that could be of interest. I think I’ll stay with the first one, though, where I can also touch, to some extent, on one or two of the others. Here we go:
My first attempt at writing involved poetry; I was about fifteen. On leaving secondary school, I submitted part of what I had produced to the two major publishing houses in Sweden. Needless to say, they both rejected the material. Since then I have written few poems. Twenty years later I turned to short stories. This was still in Sweden, writing in Swedish. Two were published, one in a volume for debutant writers, the other as one of two price-winning stories for children with reading difficulties. At about that time I also worked on a synopsis for a novel (in English), based, in part, on a job I’d held in England in the mid-sixties, and completed the first two chapters. I realized, though, that my work as a teacher left little room for me to write fiction and decided to put it off till my retirement.
That came in 2010. In order to warm up, before returning to my novel, I wrote a few short stories in Swedish, and tried them, without success, in a competition arranged yearly in connection with the celebration of a Swedish city as one of two capitals of culture in Europe. After that, finding no other places to send stories, I turned to Britain - and there, there were hundreds! In consequence, from then on, all my writing has been in English, much of it published in competition anthologies. Recently, thanks to Bridge House, a number of these stories and a few others have appeared in a volume entitled The Sound of Patriarchy and Other Stories. I’ve also completed my novel, which will hopefully be out before long.
What inspires me in my writing varies, but my stories very often develop from something I see or hear: noticing a man leaving a tenement building on a Monday morning, for instance, with a bunch of balloons in one hand, heading for what is a collection point for recycling rubbish; or running into a woman outside of a restaurant, at night, not quite steady on her feet, slightly overdressed, telling me as I approach her with my dog not to come too close: she’s had a few drinks and dogs can be aggressive when they smell alcohol. The first scene - that involving the man about to dump his balloons - told me that he was most likely divorced; his child, having celebrated its birthday in his flat, must now have returned to its mother. (In Sweden, these days, parents who have split up often take turns, on a weekly basis, looking after their child or children.) It gave rise to “The Sound of Patriarchy” but really has little to do with that story. The second scene - that of the inebriated woman - forms the starting point, but only the starting point, of the story named “Scene: Another Part of the Island”; I backed away from her, of course, as instructed, and walked my dog home, and so escaped what follows in the story.
And that is how my writing often works: a minor incident, or something overheard, triggers my imagination. “You can vouch for that, can’t you,” said a man once when I was waiting to renew my library card. “That I’m me,” he added. Thinking he was joking, I agreed. It was only after he had finished his business and asked me how things were at work that I recognized him as the husband of a colleague - a man I’d only seen briefly at a reception and not even spoken to (used in “Rivalry?”).
Of course, once I have arrived at some sort of starting point (which may change as I proceed), the real work starts. I have to create the characters I need as well as the setting, however sketchy, and, ideally, a conflict, either between characters or within a character - a conflict that will sometimes be resolved, at other times not (though the character may think it is, as in “Only Sometimes”). After that, what follows may involve a fact check and certainly a lot of revising - and even when I believe that my work is done, there will be comments from one or more editors to consider, ranging from minor points to major: sections that are repetitive, for instance, or leave out material that would help the reader follow what is going on. In the case of The Sound of Patriarchy and Other Stories I’m especially grateful for the work put in by Madeleine McDonald.
The conflicts that interest me in these stories, as in most of my other writing, have to do largely with matters of gender, traumatic experiences and changes in someone’s situation; often they involve all three areas.
To what extent I have been influenced by other writers, I can’t tell. A few times, when I have received a rejection slip, there has been a comment comparing the story I’ve submitted to the work of one or two other writers - once, someone from Finland as well as another one from Chile, neither of which I’d ever heard of. But having studied literature for teaching purposes for about thirty-five years has obviously left traces. Writers that I have followed with interest are, for instance, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Nick Hornby, but there have been others. No doubt, as time goes by, more will be added to that list.
What do you write? Why this in particular?
I write low key literary fiction, literary because it’s character based and ‘low key’ because it’s very accessible and usually about ordinary people with whom readers can readily relate.
What got you started on writing in the first place?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but until I retired my subject matter was that of business reports, plans, PR articles, minutes of meetings, and so on. When I stopped work I took a degree in Fine Art and hugely enjoyed the dissertation: for the first time I was writing about subjects I loved. I also wrote a couple of short stories at that time and my tutor put me in touch with the Creative Writing Progamme at New Writing South in Brighton. I learnt a lot, enough to start writing seriously.
Do you have a particular routine?
No. I should have, but I don’t have the discipline or determination to set aside a regular time and place to write. Inevitably writing gets done ‘when I have the time’. That works when I’m on holiday, but not back at home. Perhaps the solution is to go on holiday more often, and for longer.
That sounds like a good idea! Do you have a dedicated working space?
No. I usually scribble the first draft in an A5 notebook and this can be done anywhere, sat in the lounge, in a train, in bed, on the beach, in the garden. I type the scribbles into a laptop, editing as I go, in effect generating the second draft. Usually the laptop is on the dining table, since it’s central to whatever is going on in the house, but of course this is an error, I should make a dedicated space in another room where I would be undisturbed.
When did you decide you could call yourself a writer? Do you do that in fact
I don’t. I say I draw and paint a bit, and write a bit. However, the experience of being published is changing my attitude, and if, as I hope, I take a more professional approach to writing from hereon in, I will be pleased and proud to call myself a writer.
How supportive are your friends and family? Do they understand what you're doing?
My wife, Chris, who died three years ago, was incredibly supportive, and was always encouraging me to write more and to go on courses and enter competitions. My family and friends are very supportive also.
Do they understand what I am doing? It depends. I think it was Ian McEwan who said it was difficult to persuade some people that he was working when he was sat staring out of the window for long periods of time.
In terms of practical (as well as emotional) support, I am very lucky to be a member of a small group of writers who meet monthly to review and critique our work. Their input to my work is like rain falling on parched earth. They are immensely talented and – I am sure – will all be published. We call the group, ‘Leaving the Waiting Room’ for obvious reasons.
What are you most proud of in your writing?
I’m proud to have created characters and situations which are sufficiently realistic to be believable and from which morals can be drawn. Hopefully they both entertain and make people think. Obviously I’m proud to have written something which someone else (who knows about these things) thinks is worth publishing. And I’m proud to be doing something useful with my time and exposing my ideas to a wider audience.
How do you get on with editing and research?
I quite enjoy ‘line editing’, there’s something calming and therapeutic about it after the effort of creating, but I don’t enjoy re-writing because when you have already struggled to find the best way of expressing something or dealing with a particular aspect of the plot, or of characterisation it is very difficult to construct a better alternative. The editorial guidance and advice from Bridge House (thank you Hannah) was wonderful, both very insightful and understanding.
Do you have any goals for the future?
Yes. I aim to finish two novels.
The first, titled Bite Back set in Brighton in the early 2010’s, is a very dark and violent tale of revenge, and is as good as finished, but needs some changes made to the ending, so I must make one more (last) draft, and then try to get it published.
The second is a story of love found and lost and then found again, and is set in London in the 1960’s and Ireland in 2010. The first half is nearly complete, and the second half has still to be written. I will be very proud if I manage to finish it and get it published; it is loosely based on a marvellous true story, it could (will) make a fine opera..
Which writers have inspired you?
In no particular order:
Ian McEwan, Elena Ferranti, William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Anthony Doerr, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, William Wharton, H E Bates.
William's collection Angels and Devils is published by Bridge House.
What got you writing short stories in the first place?
Short stories are great for experimenting with different styles and ideas. When I was teaching they fitted into my holidays, as it was difficult to follow through with longer projects. Bridge House has been brilliant over the years at providing opportunities and encouragement for short fiction.
Tell me about I Knew It in the Bath.
I Knew it in the Bath is a collection of short stories which show that no matter how we expect events to unfold, life has a way of confounding us.
How did you come up with the title?
This was from a short story that Bridge House had published, set in an hour real time as a woman sits in a bath and reflects over her life. The title suggests that no matter how much you think you know the answers, life doesn’t go to plan.
Why this particular combination of stories?
The stories are diverse in subject matter and style, but unified by beginning with a quote which hints at the theme. Most have been published before or selected from competitions.
What advice would you give for anyone who wants to write short stories or put together a collection like this?
Have fun, let some of the stories tell themselves as often they are the best ones and harness emotions that you have experienced in other contexts.
What other sort of material do you write?
It varies so much, from children’s fiction, YA novels to short stories for adults.
I have two children’s books coming out before Christmas with Bridge House: Playing Together (pre-school) and Santa’s Supersonic Sleigh (5 – 7 years). I have been contacted by someone who would like to make a short film of my immersive theatre piece, Unseen Eyes. At the moment I am working on my Young Adult fiction.