Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
I have written a number of plays, a musical (which has been performed) and a film script (which has been filmed.) In recent years I have concentrated on fiction and in particular on trying to revive what I call ‘portfolio fiction’ – a form which probably began with the Odyssey – in which a long narrative emerges out of a series of short ones. Thus, Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium is the story of an excursion to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in which all the excursionists tell tales and in so doing create a panorama of the age as well as a large-scale drama in which they all play a part.
For me writing is as much a tactile activity as an imaginative one. I am unusual among authors in that I write with a pen or, more usually, a pencil. I like to measure my progress in the number of sharpenings: an average day contains four, a good one six. I love the moment when the pencil gets so short you can no longer hold it. Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium consumed two five-packs of Staedtler HBs. In my current project I am about to start my second five-pack.
What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book?
In the case of Mr Blackwood, not so much a real-life event as an atmosphere. My grandparents were real Victorians and their house in Stafford was a fully furnished Victorian house with kitchen range, anti-macassars, aspidistra, finger-crushing wooden mangle and paintings of Highland cattle. On their dressing table there was a paper weight enclosing a picture of the Crystal Palace – almost certainly a souvenir from the Great Exhibition of 1851 at which my grandfather’s father was an exhibitor. If anything, it was the paperweight which inspired the book.
What inspires/inspired your creativity?
It’s usually when two ideas I’ve already had and haven’t been able to do anything with suddenly snap together. For Mr Blackwood, the two ideas were, first, a longing to know what The Canterbury Tales they would have been like if Chaucer had finished them, with tales being told on both the outward and the return journeys; and, second, a fascination with early train travel, especially journeys made in open carriages (or ‘tubs’ as they were called).
How do you deal with creative block?
There are two kinds of block. One is being unable to find the words – usually the starting phrase – for what you want to say; the second is not knowing what you want to say in the first place. The two problems seem to originate in different parts of the brain. To solve the first, I keep on writing until the right words turn up, then scrap everything I’ve written so far and start again. To solve the second, I usually go for a bike ride. I get a lot of good ideas when cycling. Sitting at my desk never removes the second kind of block.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Putting too many contrivances in the plot. Progression from one stage of the plot to the next should be natural and unforced. Making it seem so requires sleight of hand. Another fault is sagging sentences, or what I call the ‘washing line’ effect, with too many noun phrases dangling from prepositions. Sentences constructed in that way always seem to drag.
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
For Mr Blackwood I hired a professional illustrator. Covers sell books and you need to invest in them. Titles are difficult. You know when you’ve found the right one but no amount of looking will help you find it. Good titles float into your head ready-made, though I haven’t the foggiest idea where they come from.
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
The reviews for Mr Blackwood on Amazon and Goodreads have all been positive, so the question hasn’t arisen. Many years ago, however, I belonged to a theatre writers’ workshop, and a play I wrote – and which in many ways I still think the most original thing I’ve ever done – was torn apart by the rest of the group. The only consolation I had was that the professional actors who read it were very complimentary. It seems arrogant of me to say that the group just didn’t get it, but the truth is they just didn’t. I was very discouraged and didn’t write anything for a long time after.
How has your creation process improved over time?
By being more self-critical and more ruthless. You have to learn to be murderous, to kill off brilliant bits for the sake of the whole. The overall shape, the direction of travel are what matter most. Purple passages, however pretty or witty, must not be allowed to get in the way. The other thing I’ve learned is that everything – word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, book – has a right length, a precise right length, not an approximate one, and I think I’ve become quite good at judging what that is.
What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
The most surprising thing I found was that the ideas which for years I’d been collecting in a notebook and which I thought mere wisps, incapable of expansion or development, really did have legs. The worst thing is reading a chapter to my wife for the first time and feeling it fall flat even as I read it.
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
There’s no satisfaction in writing for yourself. The satisfaction comes from communicating with others. That’s what style and technique are all about. If you write, you’re putting private thoughts in a public space. You want to give others something to talk about and you won’t do that by looking inward.
What role do emotions play in creativity?
To some people this will seem a shocking thing to say, but I don’t think you need to have deep emotions to write about them. What you do need is to be able to recognise the outward signs of such feelings in others and to have the technique to evoke them in your readers. Did Shakespeare feel as passionately about Anne Hathaway as Romeo does about Juliet? Probably not, but he knew how to make language sing and that was more important to his audience than being lovelorn himself.
What are your plans for future books?
I am nervous about revealing too much about new work. I have to be at least a hundred pages into a book before I am confident that I can stay the course. I can say, however, that like Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium, The Arlington Grimoire will be a piece of ‘portfolio fiction’ in which a longer narrative is made up of a series of shorter ones. Researches have taken me into the court of the Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, a Parisian salon of the belle époque , Wewelsburg Castle, the ideological training centre for Himmler’s SS and Haight Ashbury in the 1960s. It is made up of sixteen episodes in the life of a mysterious book, not unlike the famous Voynich Manuscript, which turns up in a London auction house. Much mutilated, it hints through its marginal notes and library stamps at a varied and tumultuous history.
Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
I was brought up in a house with no television. My father disapproved of it and said that if children had plenty of books, a piano and a bike, they had all the means needed to entertain themselves. He was right. I read a lot, ride a lot and play the piano for at least two hours a day.