A real treat in store today, and my thanks to William Fiennes as he settles down in the virtual armchair, and I suggest you might want to settle down too with a nice cup of coffee and a pile of biscuits to just enjoy this and be ready for a great reading list at the end. (The Escher print, by the way, was my bookmark whilst reading The Snow Geese.)
William, a very warm welcome to the virtual armchair and now that I've read both The Music Room and The Snow Geese I feel as if I have journeyed with you through two very important times in your life. I wonder if you could talk us through where the books came from, what compelled you to write them ...in fact can you tell us everything as usual, you know us here.
So I thought a lot in those days about the idea of home, the idea of return, the power of that longing to find our place in the world, to belong in where we are, or in what we do, or what we love. And I thought about how our longing for the familiar, the known, exists alongside our appetite for the new, the undiscovered, and how we all have to negotiate a way through those contrary impulses.
At the same time, I was getting more and more excited about natural history.
I'd always been an outdoorsy person, a walker, but now I wanted to know the names of things - birds, trees, plants - and I was reading lots of books about evolution and ecology, books by Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, Richard Fortey, Jonathan Weiner, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard. And sitting outside our house each evening, watching the swifts scream overhead on their exhilarating vespers flights. And dreaming of a return to health, independence, freedom of movement.
And then coming across Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose, which got me curious about geese, and imagining a journey, an adventure, a quest...
So now I can see how the book was born out of the confluence of several different streams of thought and experience - home, illness, recovery, poems, nature, science, love of language, and a great longing to drink down the world in gulps after such a period of deprivation. But it was only really when I started writing that I began to think I'd found a form in which to convey such ideas - a sort of poetic form, in which the images would do most of the talking...
What was I thinking?!
I was a bit lost, really. Then I suppose I recognised that the problem with those abandoned books was that I didn't really care enough: nothing was at stake; nothing seemed to matter. Of course, this may just have been a failure of imagination on my part... But I wanted to write out of strong feeling. So I asked myself what I did care about. And immediately that took me to my brother Richard, and the way my parents had looked after him, and the strange magical scenes of my childhood... I didn't think I was writing anything like a "family history" or "memoir" - it felt much closer to a poem, or a song, or a novel in which everything happened to be true, and which also happened to introduce you to the history of neuroscience, and the principles behind our understanding of the brain... As with The Snow Geese, I didn't really think about the question of genre. I just wanted each book to be as perfectly itself as it could be. And again I hoped that the images would do the talking - that the right images would have more power than any amount of explanation or commentary. At first it came in a bit of rush, but then I got all knotted-up with fears - that it was too tender, too personal; or that nobody would be interested; or that it was really embarrassing to admit we lived in such a big house... And of course I worried that it might be painful for my family to relive some of those moments, even though I was writing from love, and, despite everything, in celebration. But as I went on, I began to realise that I wasn't just writing about Richard, or about our particular experience. The moated island was a microcosm, a little world, in which love and beauty and wonder coexisted with difficulty and violence and loss. So there was a vision of life, inside that ring of water. And at the heart of it was care - of parents for their children; of people for the places they live in. So my desire to sing a little bit about my brother led into these wider currents...
We love to know about a writer's writing day because we're completely inquisitive here too so can you tell us about that and what the process involves for you?
I'm now adding an extra degree of inquisition because I think we'd like to know what writers do when they don't write, what interests you and fills your non-writing days?
We focus on "challenging" secondary schools - schools with at least 30% of students eligible for free school meals, and/or less than 25% getting five A-C grades at GCSE - and this year First Story has arranged and paid for fourteen writers to work as writers-in-residence in fourteen different schools in London and Oxford. The student writers give readings of their stories and poems, and at the end of the year we help them publish their work in anthologies - proper books that they can give to their friends and families, and that the students and their schools can be proud of. I used to do quite a lot of journalism - mostly book reviews and travel pieces - but for the last few years that other portion of my working life has been almost entirely taken up with school things.
Teaching full-time would knock me out, but I find the amount I do very rewarding. And I suppose it answers to some appetite in me to be doing something alongside writing, and to be working with other people, getting out of the house, engaging with the world. A sort of counterpose, as a yoga teacher might say, to writing's necessary inwardness and solitude. I'm remembering that passage in The Music Room where I talk about the rooks and the herons that haunt the moat, and how they seem to suggest two different modes of being - the rooks talkative and gregarious, the heron solitary and contemplative. I've always wanted to have room in my life for both those birds.
Who must we read? Which authors and books would you urge us not to miss?