Enormous thanks to Stella Duffy for braving the plumped up cushions, the glare of the standard lamp, the snoring cat, and the scones and lashings of clotted cream to answer our usual sort of questions. You might like to make a pot of tea yourself and settle down to a lovely read and do help yourself to a scone while you're here.
Stella I have been completely amazed by what I have called 'your sleight of pen', how you took me through the story of The Room of Lost Things,
built up, backtracked, added detail, moved on, then a few steps back
again, if this makes sense can you give us an idea of quite how it's
If it doesn't make sense we're in trouble so would you like to tell us about anything else to do with this wonderfully engaging book? Where it came from...what you wanted to achieve ....why a health visitor...oh, in fact just tell us everything.
Sleight of pen – nice phrase, I like that. Well, it’s exactly as you describe – I write a first draft, and at the point I start writing it I usually only know beginning/middle/end (maybe!) and a few points in between. And none of those very clearly. In writing the first draft the story begins to show itself – it’s almost impossible to explain this without sounding a bit esoteric and hippy, and I really don’t want to, as I think there is far too much mystification out there about the process of writing (and far too many people making money out of teaching people it’s harder and more muse/art-led than it is, I much prefer to talk about writing as a craft not an art) BUT I do feel that story is a bit like a river – it will find it’s own way. Plot (and character and sometimes style) are the things we use to let the story find itself/show itself/be revealed. So that’s the first draft, which is usually quite a lot longer than the subsequent ones and pretty messy, and can take anything from six months to a couple of years, but – hopefully, once it’s done – has the requisite elements to make up a story. Then the real work begins – backtracking, removing, re-placing, adding detail (in the case of this book removing quite a lot of unnecessary detail!), shifting characters, (again in the case of this book) amalgamating characters … for me, this part can take another two or three or more drafts.
I have had people ask me why I just don’t plan it all out in the first place and save myself this trouble – but that doesn’t work for me. Or it hasn’t in the past, am sure things might change. All writing is about making choices/decisions for characters/plot, I prefer to make those choices as I go along in the first draft because it feels more organic (whether it is or not, who knows), it certainly feels freer and I’m less likely to get bored! It also allows for the occasional eureka/magic moment to slip in and, in my experience, planning things out in a very detailed manner, cuts the possibility of making mistakes – and I often find it’s the ‘mistakes’, the things that don’t quite work and need attention to make them work (or cutting entirely!), that allows some magic to happen. The magic of getting it wrong and finding a way to make it right. It does mean a lot of work in the re-writing, but that’s fine with me. I like that bit.
In working on The Room of Lost Things, because I’d originally imagined it as a novel with Robert and Akeel at the centre and up to sixteen characters spinning out from them (a sort of cartwheel, where they were the centre, the other characters the spokes, and then the macro-story of the place the outer rim), I had a lot of characters to cut/amalgamate. What I found – or rather, what was pointed out to me! – is that no matter how much I wanted to write a ‘true’ novel (ie, all fiction, but feeling like truth) that can become boring, it can become too meandering, and – at the other extreme – a single character, who pops into the shop just once for a few minutes, and to whom I give three great pages, is bound to make the reader want to know more. In reality, that character would never come back to Robert’s life. In a novel, if it’s a good character and the reader cares, then of course they must come back or the reader feels cheated. Basically, I think I wanted to try to be as ‘real’ as possible, allowing for dead ends and go-nowhere characters and the truth that all of us will meet people who matter, but sometimes so briefly we don’t notice it until later, and maybe even never see them again. Now, either I wasn’t good enough – am not yet good enough – to do this in a novel (and that’s fine, because I hope to write at least another eleven books and ideally learn more as I go along) – or it’s simply not possible in a book. Maybe possible in a film, but not in a book. We’ll see. Maybe one day I’ll try again.
In terms of where did it come from, I’ve said this several times now, but I assure you it’s entirely true – Faisal, the lovely man who owned the dry cleaner’s shop where this one is (sort of) located, I have fudged the geography of the actual junction a little – once said to me, after seeing one of my wife’s plays (she’s primarily a theatre and radio writer) : “You should write about a dry cleaner, we know people’s secrets.” And of course I started to think about how and why – the things left in pockets, the hems taken up or down, the stains. The stains! Like all my ideas, it sat with me for quite a while before I even thought I knew what it could be, but it was always going to be based in Loughborough Junction, and always going to be a “London book”. I love London, I love living in London (apologies to the London-haters), and I particularly love South London (I was born here, though I grew up in New Zealand) and I mind that North Londoners are so rude about South (all that divide is just weird to those of us who didn’t grow up here), and even more so that my own part (yes LJ is real!) and this whole swathe between Brixton and Camberwell and down to Herne Hill has such a bad rep in the press. It’s just a place - there are good people and bad people everywhere. And no, we don’t have a posh café – but we do have more nail bars than you could shake a stick at! Faisal sold the shop earlier this year and I kind of like that, miss chatting to him every now and then, but I quite like that even the shop I thought of as Robert’s shop has now been reincarnated - as a nail bar/hairdresser!
OK, some quick bits about the characters, as you ask -
Helen’s name is Helen Goff. Helen Lyndon Goff is the real name of P L Travers, the Australian who invented the most famous nanny of them all, Mary Poppins. (I like this stuff, the character note no-one ever knows unless you tell them!)
Marylin – the health worker! She’s a health worker because I was looking for a job that someone could do where they went into the lives of other people (as Robert also does), and took the job of a friend, Sarah Martin, who is a health visitor (also the wife of Pete Ayrton who, at Serpent’s Tail, published my crime novels). I also have several friends in mixed-race relationships, and have had conversations with people about their children being (apparently, in a world where colour tends to be the first thing most people see) a different race to them – white mothers with mixed-race children for eg, and about how that impacts on a mother-child relationship, the desire from a white mother that her child should not suffer racism, and the awareness that she will not be able to protect her child from an unkind world. I wanted to touch on that in the Audrey-Marylin relationship (and I did so a lot more in earlier drafts, but it was one of the points that was whittled back …)
Patricia Ryan. I love Patricia. I know no-one like her, have never lived with anyone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, I just really wanted to write about it, from her point of view, knowing what was happening to her. It also gave a nice added side to Robert’s character, his concern for her.
The Poet of the 345 – I once heard a man sing on this bus. Once. I made him into a character who was practically resident on it! And anyway, a bus that goes all the way from Peckham to South Kensington? That’s just a great route!
Dan and Charlie – the witnesses who watch the world around them, named for Dan Leno and Charlie Chaplin (who did both live and work in the area), the watchers.
Hmm, I’m just thinking about getting these answers quoted back at me, some time later in another interview – and it strikes me that this is what I think about the book now, today, what I remember about making it now – when actually I was writing it some time ago now. So I might well answer slightly differently another time. But this is definitely very close to what I think and why I think I wrote these things!!
We are sticklers for the detail here at dovegreyreader and we like to know about your writing day, must the bath be clean and the stairs hoovered before you can sit down to write, are you a 'fountain pen and inker' or a 'tip-tap-typer', the paper...does it need to be special, favourite writing shoes/jumper, these are the things we absolutely need to know.
OK, well … I get up. About 8 ish most days. Not often much earlier, very rarely later than 9am. As I have a Buddhist practice, I try to chant most mornings, I don’t always manage it, but things often seem to go better when I do – Buddhism (like writing perhaps) is a daily practice. It works better with discipline! Then I’ll eat something (toast or muesli – I make good muesli. I make good bread too actually. Very fond of brazil nut bread made with spelt flour. Mmm.) And then I go to my office. We’re both writers and, after seven years in one bedroom flats (in which Shelley wrote on the laptop in the kitchen and I wrote on the computer in the bedroom), we finally bought a three bedroomed house. We were hoping to have children, they didn’t come, so we now have an office each. I go to mine, she goes to hers. At this point, all the manuals/how to write books say I should be sitting down to work. Sadly not. Now I check emails, check facebook, maybe write a bit of my blog (I don’t do it every day, just when moved to), I fiddle, faddle, doodle, make notes, do interviews (like this). I listen to Radio 4 on and off up to the end of Woman’s Hour and sometimes a little beyond. I might edit a bit. I might do some work on one of the many other projects I seem to have on the go at once – a short story, an article, something for the play I’m directing later in the year, if it’s sunny I might do some work in the garden - I MIGHT even get some actual writing done. But most often writing is what happens in the afternoon. I long ago realised I do my best creative work between about 2 and 7pm. There’s no point fighting that, so now I try very hard to make sure that time of day is free (tricky if you’re trying to go out in the evening, or if people will insist on meeting for lunch, but I’m getting a bit better – not very! – at saying no and trying to keep that time clear) and then I work. Of course, all the rest of it is work too. The writing I’m doing in the morning for other projects is also work. The production stuff for the play I’m directing is also work. The answering interview questions (like this!) is also work. But the thing I think is my ‘real’ work, is the making of books. And I do that best in the afternoon. Always, if at all possible, directly on to screen. I can’t type properly, but am very fast with four of my fingers now, and – as I edit so very much – writing by hand followed by typing always feels like a real imposition to me. I started writing books on computer (an old Amstrad back then, took me seven hours to print up my first novel!), so I guess it’s what I’m used to. I can do it if I have to, I just prefer not to.
If I had my way I would work like this seven days a week. I almost never take whole weekends off, maybe one of the days, rarely both, and haven’t had a ‘proper’ holiday (as in doing no work at all) in many many years. Partly I don’t want to leave my work for as long as it takes to have a holiday – partly (as I discovered to my cost when I had breast cancer nine years ago) there’s no sick pay or holiday pay for freelancers! Not only do I want to keep working, I actually need to keep working. Lucky I like it!
As for cleaning, well, yes, the house does need to be clean too. And having cleaned houses for rich people all through my university years and well beyond, we don’t have a cleaner. I’m not sure I’d ever want someone to know as much about me as I knew – and still remember – about the people I cleaned for! I like a clean, clear, blank chunk of hours to work in, with nothing hanging over me. The fact that this almost never happens, I rarely have one day a week like this, let alone a whole week, has nothing to do with the truth that it’s still my preferred way of working!
Oh, and I prefer silence. Perfect blissful silence. That writing in cafés thing is certainly not me.
Apart from your books which of course we will all read now, who else must we read...sorry I think I've pinched Janet Frame off your list but please add her anyway.
Frame then, naturally. The poems as well as the fiction. And while we’re on New
Zealand women, how about Marilyn Duckworth and Elizabeth Knox (The Vintner’s Luck is really lovely).
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s The Settler’s
Cookbook. We bought a copy at her launch today and it looks great, some of
the material (having flicked through) is from her solo show which I saw and
loved last year and I always like a good cookbook with stories. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
and Riddley Walker (Russell Hoban)
are still among my favourite novels ever. Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy is a work of genius and disturbingly under-lauded.
My friend Serena Mackesy’s Hold My Hand
is a great piece of contemporary du Maurier-esque suspense. Which reminds me, I
read du Maurier’s The Scapegoat last
year – really liked it, not sure why it’s not better known.
And that’s enough to be going on with for this week, perhaps?