Interview With Author Dr. Liam Guilar

# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)! 

In a desperate attempt to appear windswept and interesting I used to claim to be the only lute playing kayaking medievalist to have been ‘smuggled’ over the Kazak border in the back of an apple truck before being given twenty-four hours to leave Samarkand.

My name is Liam Guilar, I rarely use the Dr. I was born in England but I have lived and worked in Australia for nearly forty years. I’ve had six collections of poetry published. I am the poetry editor for The Brazen Head (https://brazen-head.org) and a reader for DragonSmoke Press (https://dragonsmokepress.com). I also run a blog, Lady Godiva and Me (https://ladygodivaandme.blogspot.com), and a website (www.liamguilar.com).

My earliest publications were articles written about travels to remote parts of the world in search of white-water rivers and technical material for kayaking and canoeing courses, as well as for my day job as an English teacher.

My first collection of poems, The Poet’s Confession was an accident. I was sending out enquiry letters for a book I’d written about a journey through what was then Soviet Central Asia, I had two prepaid envelopes left over. I did everything it’s possible to do wrong as far as a submission goes but the publisher was unconcerned and offered to publish the manuscript. I was so shocked I think I wrote back and asked, ‘What do you mean, I would like to publish your poems’.

The second collection, I’ll Howl Before You Bury Me was entered into a competition which it won. The prize was publication. At this point I thought I’d better start taking writing much more seriously. Cringing when you read your own work in print is unpleasant. So I backtracked and went the usual submission route, submitting individual poems to increasingly prestigious journals while collecting enough rejection slips to paper the wall. The idea of writing short poems soon lost its appeal, so after Rough Spun to Close Weave was published I turned to using poems to tell stories.

I’m a medievalist by training and inclination. Lady Godiva and Me was an early attempt to combine poetry and research. It tells the story of the historical Lady Godiva, the legendary one, and what it was like growing up in Coventry in the 60s and 70s.

My most recent book, A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) is the first of three planned instalments in an attempt to rewrite parts of a long 12th century poem. I’m trying to use the writing process to learn about the original 12th century writer.

# What inspires/inspired your creativity?

The pleasure of writing. The enjoyment that comes with moving words around until the box snaps shut and they can’t be moved anymore. It’s the best game in town. Even when the writing isn’t going well, I’d rather be doing it than anything else. I enjoy editing as much as I do writing even if a day’s work is less than ten lines.

I first encountered Laȝamon’s Brut in the late 1970s. It’s a late 12th century poem of some 16,000 lines. I did an Honours thesis, then a Masters (by research) on the poet and the poem, and realised that the traditional academic route simply can’t answer a lot of very interesting questions. I wanted to peer over his shoulder and understand him as a writer. To do this I started to rewrite three of his stories.

The differences between a medieval writer and a modern one fascinate me. Modern advice for fiction writers, the kind you get in creative writing classes, workshops or ‘How to books’ would be meaningless. Consistency, back stories, character development, the idea that things can happen “off stage’ are all missing. The differences open up different ways of thinking about how a story works or could work.

And I enjoy research because it turns writing into a never ending learning process. I spend far too much time reading, looking at old maps, and comparing medieval versions of the stories I’m writing. I enjoy going down the rabbit hole offered by a question like ‘What would a rich woman wear to show off her wealth in sixth century England?’ or ‘Why does Locrin hide Aestrild in an earth house with ivory doors?’

# How do you deal with creative block?

I used to be terrorised by finished poems. I’d worry that I’d never start another one. Now I have a long-term project it’s not such a problem. I’m still daunted by finishing a book, so I make sure the next project has started before I finish the one I’m on.

Usually ‘block’ is because I’m stuck on a technical problem. Then I read other writers to see how they solved it.

The worst block is total dissatisfaction with what I’m writing. It can bring everything to a shattering halt. Then I have to accept that I am writing badly and give my-self permission to do so. One of the hardest things to teach students was that a draft is a messy approximation of the finished product. It took me years to accept my own advice.

# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

For me, letting another writer’s voice or method take over. I spent the last two years reading, and reading about, David Jones. It’s taken me six months to get him out of my current draft. Trying out other writer’s techniques is an important way of learning, but I don’t want the experiments to show up in the final product.

The other major mistake is letting the research dominate the story telling. You shouldn’t know, from reading the text, how much time I spent looking at a map or how many books and articles I’ve read about post-Roman Britain.

# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

I’m very bad at titles. So no. As a reviewer, I’d say avoid titles that are confusing and cover art that isn’t directly related to the contents.

# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

There are different types of bad review? The glowing one that seems to be talking about another book is embarrassing. The one that points out where you went wrong is painful but useful. The worst kind is written by someone who is using the review as an opportunity to massage their own ego at your expense. I’ve had two of these.

My worst experience of being reviewed was by someone who made so many factual errors that it was obvious he either read with no attention or didn’t understand what he was reading. It felt like I was being gratuitously insulted by a total stranger. You want to respond. I wanted to bury the writer and the editor who published the review with a withering rebuttal. But responding is not a good idea.

Having said all that, I write reviews and because of my own bad experiences I’m aware that I’m dealing with a chunk of someone else’s life. While I think professional academics are fair game and should be held accountable for bad writing and sloppy thinking, with poetry books, if I can’t say anything positive, I’ll hand the book back. I prefer to be enthusiastic and celebrate books I’ve read which I admire or enjoy. I set up a blog on my website called Enthusiasms for that purpose.

Dealing with feedback is a fascinating problem. See next question.

# How has your creation process improved over time?

I think I was very lucky. Although I’ve been trying to write poems all my life, when I started writing for publication, I was writing articles about kayaking, or technical pieces about kayaking or teaching. You can’t afford to be precious. If you are obscure, incoherent or wrong the consequences can be serious. I learnt early on to show the draft around and ask for feedback. It took me some time to apply the same logic to writing poems, but once I did it made the end product so much better. It’s tempting but self-defeating to see writing, especially writing poetry, as a private activity.

Dealing with feedback is a skill in itself. It’s very easy to fold up and accept everything someone else says; it’s also very easy to reject everything.

I taught the idea of circles, which I read somewhere a long time ago. The inner circle is your family and friends. They are supportive but unlikely to be useful. The outer circle is editors, publishers, reviewers who may be driven by their own agenda and may not be useful. The middle circle is made up of people who know something about writing but can be trusted to be honest without being destructive. Staffing the middle circle is another skill. There’s little point in showing your work to someone if you know what they will say in advance.

It helps if you respect the person giving advice. I’m not a fan of writing workshops or creative writing classes for that reason. I’ve been in some that were comically bad. The best feedback is the one that tells me that I can’t get away with the things I already know are flawed or points out something I haven’t seen.

# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

Writing stories I’m always surprised by the way the words lead off in unknown directions. Even though I’m following a storyline it’s fascinating to see how incidents and characters expand. The best moment is when I read the book a year or so later and it surprises me because it’s good. I wonder how I wrote that. The worst part of completing a book is rereading it a year later and finding that section I really should have cut out or revised. I wonder why I wrote that.

# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

Good question. Over the years I’ve encountered many writers who claim they write poetry purely for their own satisfaction and have no interest in what a reader think. Some of them claim, aggressively that they don’t read any other poets. I wonder why they expect their work to be published or read.

So ideally there’s a balance. I want to satisfy my own curiosity, and I want to enjoy myself. I want to learn how to improve what I’m doing. But I am convinced that if a writer seeks publication, then they should be offering a total stranger more than just the spectacle of a writer writing a poem.

I hope anyone reading A Presentment of Englishry, or the narrative I’m working on now, will enjoy the stories. So as I’m revising, I’m very consciously considering what a reader needs to know. I try to avoid writing in way that would require an unlikely prior knowledge. How good is your knowledge of 5th century heresy?

There’s real satisfaction when a stranger says they like my work. I’d be delighted if a reader was lured into finding out a little more about the historical background to the stories. There’s another level of satisfaction when someone who knows this material better than I do tells me what I’ve written has given them new insight into it.

# What role do emotions play in creativity?

With poetry this is a loaded question, since the assumption is often that poetry is an expression of emotion. Poets who spend their lives writing about themselves don’t often interest me so it would bore me to be one of them. Besides, how many poems have you read about happiness? Apart from the usual emotional Ferris wheel of excitement and disappointment, I think of writing as a craft or a trade. I’m not ‘expressing myself’, I’m building something. On the other hand no one’s paying me to meet a deadline. There are days I can’t do it, so on those days I have learnt to do something else.

# Do you have any creativity tricks?

I ‘translate’, usually early medieval texts. I can stumble around in two medieval languages and two modern ones. It’s a way of forcing me to think about modern English. It’s also a useful practice when I’m stuck or bored with what I’m doing. ‘Translate’ is in inverted commas because I would be mortified if anyone read the end result. ‘Stumble around’ is not false modesty.

I walk a lot. Some of the best lines come from the rhythm of walking. I compose as I walk and If I can remember it until I get home and write it down, it’s usually worth keeping.

# What are your plans for future books?

I set out to tell three stories from Laȝamon’s Brut. The first appeared in A Presentment of Englishry. I’m working on the second now, which is the story of the end of Roman Britain. Parts of it have started to appear in journals and on line. If I finish it, and If I find a publisher, I will have to do the last of the three stories.

# What do you think about writers having to have an online presence?

There’s definite pressure on modern writers to maintain their ‘online presence’. I often wonder how some have time for writing, they are so active on twitter, Instagram, Facebook discussion boards, blogs etc.

However, while answering your first question I was laughing at the number of links I included, so perhaps a limited involvement is useful. I am the poetry editor for the Brazen Head, and a reader for DragonSmoke press. I also write articles, reviews and blog. I used to worry these would detract from my writing. However, none of them is particularly time consuming and reading a superb submission to The Brazen Head or DragonSmoke press keeps me honest when I’m evaluating my own work. Having to verbalise why I am not going to accept a poem, or writing a critical review, makes me want to ensure I’m not guilty of the same flaws.

Having a rough idea where you are on the scale from utterly incompetent to excellent is important in any activity. And matching ambition to that awareness is essential.

# What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Four things.

You can’t read too much. Good writers are always good readers first.

The idea of ‘critical circles’ I mentioned above.

‘You can’t play the instrument if you don’t take it out of the case’. One friend writes a poem a day. Everyday. He throws most of what he writes away but he’s the most technically proficient poet I’ve ever met. ‘Translation’ comes into this category.

Finally, something I read in one of Alan Garner’s books:

If someone else can do the job better, let them.
Take as long as the job requires.