[*phrase courtesy of John Donne, 16th Century English Metaphysical poet]
Yesterday I posted a review of Emma’s debut novel The Mathematics of Love here on my blog. (It was originally posted on Story Circle Book Reviews web site.) Today it is my greatest pleasure to introduce you to the author herself.
Welcome Emma, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. It is such a pleasure to have you here!
1) You have been blogging for five years now, initially setting up your blog as a means of scratching “this itch of writing” while you were heavily engaged with the act of writing your novels and other works. Perhaps you would care to expound more fully on this never-ending, impossible to satisfy, desire to write and then, write some more?
Goodness knows where the desire to write comes from – it can’t just be to tell stories, or I wouldn’t enjoy writing analytically and journalistically. I think it’s about exploring things – stories, ideas, connections. It’s only by trying to put something into words that I really begin to understand it – whether that understanding is an idea about Showing and Telling, or about how human relationships work, or what a sunset makes you feel.
2) Indeed why did you choose, all those years ago, to write on such a public platform? What inspires and motivates you to keep blogging? Do you write on or for any other public forums?
I keep blogging because I go on wanting to explore writing in that way – how it works, from grammar to inspiration – and because people seem to find it useful. It’s also useful for teaching, both to help me work out how to explain something, and to send students. It’s also more immediate than a book; I can respond to what I encounter in talking to other writers, and they can respond to my posts. I have contributed to other blogs, including The History Girls and Writing Historical Novels, but it’s quite a commitment, and my own blog does have to come first.
3) Would you mind telling us a little about your experience studying for the M. Phil in Creative Writing followed by your Ph.D. , from your initial decision to sign up for the courses to the benefits you gained from participating in them?
I signed up for the MPhil at the University of Glamorgan because I’d taught myself to write a decent novel, over several years and several novels, but I just couldn’t get over the bar into getting published, and I didn’t know what else was missing. At the time, the MPhil was the only Masters which was built round a book-length project, and that was exactly what I needed: support to make the novel I’d be writing anyway even better. That was the novel that became The Mathematics of Love. I don’t know if it would have been published without that extra help, but it certainly, certainly wouldn’t have made the impact it did, or been shortlisted for prizes.
I’d decided I didn’t want a conventional MA where you try most forms before settling for one, but when I came to teach Creative Writing for the Open University and had to teach a poetry module, I was profoundly grateful for having been in the MPhil workshops: it was a privilege and a huge education to hear the likes of Gillian Clarke and Sheenagh Pugh workshopping my poet peers. So I always say, even if you’re convinced you’re hard-wired for a particular form, as I am for novels, don’t neglect the chance to learn about how other forms work.
The PhD was a bit different, as it was just me and a supervisor. It was fascinating to connect my process in writing it with some of the great contemporary writers of historical fiction, and fantastic to find myself in the creative hothouse that is Goldsmiths. And it was support for writing A Secret Alchemy, which was under contract, in among the hullabaloo of The Mathematics of Love being published.
4) Doubtless it would always be better to sign up for a post-graduate university level degree course in creative writing, but in these economically difficult days, do you have any suggestions for an aspiring author who needs to create her own DIY Creative Writing course?
The best DIY course I know is the textbook for the Open University A215 course I teach, Linda Anderson and Derek Neale’s Creative Writing: A Workbook With Readings. You can buy it anywhere – you don’t have to do the course . Unlike most how-to-write books it’s structured week-by-week, because it’s designed for people working at home on their own, and it contains all the readings and texts that it talks about, for the same reason. It’s absolutely brilliant and I raid it all the time for the rest of my teaching. But it’s worth looking around for shorter courses and online courses too.
Other than that, I’d say, learn to read like a writer:- Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, and David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction are two of the best guides to that. Then try to find an online forum or a writer’s circle or both that suits you: one that’s the right mixture of supportiveness and ambition. Don’t be afraid to try a few, and walk out of a few, till you find the right one for you.
5) While preparing for this interview I read, and loved, your first novel ‘The Mathematics of Love’, [see my review here]an historical novel set in two time periods, post-Napoleanic Europe and England, and 1970’s England.
Writing historical fiction is about more than simply identifying your characters, doing a little research on the period and inserting your protagonists into a period setting.
The following are a list of questions which occurred to me as I devoured your novel, wondering “how did she do this?”
· How do you go about researching material for your novels?
I read around a lot, before I start, for flavour and atmosphere and to get a feel for things. I try to research the basics that will cause chaos if I find I was wrong, but I prefer to leave a lot of research till later. Otherwise I get bogged down in it, and writing the novel becomes an exercise in using data, which is disastrous. Then the first draft throws up a whole lot more I need to know – and I’ll do that later, if possible.
· Which comes first – the time period or your characters?
It depends – sometimes I have a story, and go “location hunting” to find a period which will mean it can flower with maximum drama. Sometimes I’ll have characters, and look for a story and a period that will give them a real work out. But periods have characters as strong for me as if they were people, so sometimes I want to work with a particular zeitgeist, and then I’ll start trying to dream up a story that will flower and be exciting in that period, and find characters that will work in it.
· Do you have any tips for carrying out research, any particular methods which might be considered ‘best practice’?
I never write worse than when I’ve got my research in the other hand. As Rose Tremain puts it,
“…all the research done for a novel … must rise into the orbit of the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist’s mind before it can acquire its own truth for the work in question… “Reimagining implies some measure of forgetting. … Data transferred straight from the research area to the book will simply remain data. It will be imaginatively inert.”
In other words, you have to leave the research behind – let yourself forget it – and then let the needs of the story draw on the researched material just like any other material, and shape it to the story.
· How do you balance the needs for historical accuracy with the requirements of excellence in fiction writing, a balance you have personally achieved?
Thank you for thinking I’ve achieved it! My job as a writer of any kind of fiction is to persuade the reader to agree to forget that none of this actually happened, by evoking a world which feels authentic. Historical accuracy is important because if readers don’t feel that it’s authentic, then the contract between me and them is broken – so I must be accurate where it matters for them. And I can be as right as right, but if they don’t believe me, then the novel doesn’t work: I have to persuade them to believe me. And, of course, readers do partly read for the “non-fiction pleasures” of finding out about times and places. But if they want History, they should go and read a history book. I’m writing fiction, and the needs of storytelling trump everything else.
· What are the difficulties in writing historical fiction as a contemporary genre?
I don’t think there are many – we’re in a bit of a golden age for historical fiction, and it’s easier to research than ever, now you can see original documents and places without stirring from your computer. There will always be readers who don’t understand why anyone would write about any time except 2013, but that’s their loss.
· Are there any special resources which you would particularly recommend to a wannabe writer of historical fiction? Where to start? Would you recommend reading a number of novels set in the time period one wishes to use as the setting? Or might one be better served by starting with the actual historical research?
I myself avoid novels set in a period I want to write about like the plague, thought I know other writers who read loads of them. I need my history first-hand, not second-hand: other historical fiction has pre-sifted the history, and their needs and interests for their story are different from mine. I absolutely do read the fiction and plays written in the period, though: that’s immensely important for the voice, as well as for the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Letters and diaries of the time are fantastic resources too. After that I would always start with the big outline – a general social history of the time, say, and books about your characters’ professions and interests.
· How much time did you devote to research when writing both your novels?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m always brewing the next novel, so perhaps a year or more “reading round” while I’m finishing the previous one? Then a bout of some weeks hard reading, and another bout once the first draft’s finished and I know what else I need. Though it always depends on when I can fit in the travelling, or the libraries, or whatever else.
· Any special tips for blending fact and fiction?
What I said further up, really: let go of the facts as facts: don’t let them have more priority or importance than the rest of your material. Having said that, if your imagination has led you down a particular road – especially with real historical characters – you may have to go and check whether you can get away with it. Brace yourself, though: what will you do if you find your research contradicts what you imagined? Can you compromise? Find a work-around? Or will you have to choose between good storytelling and good history
· Did you take copious notes? How do you organize all the material you must amass and gather?
I do take notes, but mostly as a way of getting stuff into my head – into Tremain’s “anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing” sphere of the mind. I try to ignore them when I’m actually writing, for the reasons I’ve talked about, except when I really need to check something. I buy books as much as I can, because then I can mark the margins (in pencil!) with headings, so I don’t have to take swarms of notes, but I can thumb straight through a book later and find what was useful to me ready-indexed. I also have a folder of Favourites in my browser, and of documents and images on the desktop, and magazine-files of stuff on my physical desk. I often forget they’re there, though!
6) The structure of your novel is somewhat different from that of other historical novels which shift and alternate between different time periods. Where they often allow a chapter per period you chose instead to move between periods almost without warning, thus setting up a series of connections which both develop and add layering to your novel as it moves towards the end. What considerations led you to structure your novel in this way? Did you plot your novel first laying down the various plot points with an outline of where your tale would go, or did you instead write your story first and only then try and organize it into a coherent whole? If you plan your novels would you mind sharing your plotting methods please?
I had a Waterloo veteran and I wanted to write about voyeurism and war and photography, but it was too early for photography. So I developed this parallel story from the last, pre-digital generation of photojournalists. It was for The Mathematics of Love that I developed my Novel Planning Grid, which seems to be helpful for lots of people. It’s a way of seeing how each strand works in itself, while also how it relates to the other strands. I always write novels in the order that the reader will read them, otherwise I get in a horrible muddle. But the beauty of the grid is that you only have to fill in what you know so far: blank squares just sit there reminding you that they still need working out. And I could track the interrelation between the two strands – things like themes, and nightmares in one strand which are reflected in the other.
On the moves between the two, the reader does get an asterisk, and the name of the new narrator. But I also had a rule that the first sentence after the switch needed to have at least two things to help anchor the reader quickly: a name or an object, and a very characteristic sentence which the other narrator couldn’t possibly have said.
7) In your blog post here you mentioned that part of your post-graduate studies involved writing a lengthy commentary about your work. Anything you’d care to share from your reflections on your own writing?
The commentary did have to be academic, and discuss my own writing in the context of past and contemporary historical fiction and theory. But I meant what I said at the beginning:
“The central theme of my novel A Secret Alchemy is storytelling, and this commentary itself is also an act of storytelling. It extrapolates backwards from the finished novel, and attempts a coherent account of what is an often incoherent and mysterious process of creation. Although that creative process may be put to the service of an artistic purpose which can be discussed and analysed, how the process served that purpose is only partly accessible to the creator.”
That was partly covering my back with the examiners – “trust me, I’m telling you stories” – but it’s also true, and it’s what most of “This Itch of Writing” is all about: how at the core of any creative act is something profoundly mysterious, and yet we have to try to understand and handle that mystery consciously and coherently.
There are probably far too many tools and suggestions sprinkled all over the landscape of your blogging world, for anyone to attempt to pick out any over and above the others. Yet even allowing for the sheer diversity and richness of content to be found within the archives of your blog, the following are the links I continuously return to, over and over again. I am listing them here for any readers of my blog who might care to check these out for themselves. Indeed, dear Reader, do yourself a favour and sign up to receive updates from Emma’s blog by e-mail!
· Books on Emma’s bedside table
· Emma’s favourite books about writing
· Blog posts and resources from Emma’s archives, covering the gamut of writerly concerns from the difference between showing and telling to learning how not to be afraid of long sentences, and much more besides.
· Where Emma places a paragraph taken from Elizabeth Bowen’s novel ‘The Heat of the Day’ under the microscope of her literary detective eye; and teaches her readers how to study and learn from a mistress of the literary world.
· Where Emma recommends and reviews the incomparably excellent book How to Read Like a Writer by Francine Prose, a book which opened my eyes about how much wealth awaits the aspiring writer between the covers of some of our best literary masterpieces.
A heartfelt thank you to Emma Darwin for agreeing to this interview, though it might be more apt to call it an inquisition!