Creatives in Profile – Interview with Nicholas Rougeux

Nicholas Rougeux

Creativity, in all its myriad different forms, can take us to the edge of the world and look beyond. It can inspire, inform, influence. Used in the right way, it can help us look at the world differently; making the ordinary extraordinary and encouraging us to see beauty and elegance in the unexpected.

In an era of big and open data, perhaps one of the most interesting artistic movement to emerge in recent years is that of data visualisation, which can describe, depict, and represent facts and truths about ourselves and our surroundings. The artistic representation and visualisation of data in this way thereby allows us to picture not only what we can readily see, but also the things that aren’t visible. In this way, it can be seen as a natural extension of artistic ‘Realism’ – or the representation of reality as it is; an act of mimesis.

Nicholas Rougeux is a creative at the forefront of this artistic medium. A Chicago-based self-taught web developer and artist, Nicholas has mapped the punctuation in books – stripping out the words of literary classics in the process – as well as charting mesmerising maps of the world’s highway interchanges; creating constellations from the opening lines of famous novels; and exploring the hidden art of subway tracks.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

ROUGEUX

I’m a web designer in Chicago and lead a fairly ordinary lifestyle. I was born in Ohio and transferred to Chicago when I was younger and this has been my home ever since. I’ve always been interested in the web from its early days and have had a website for my projects as long as I can remember. The early years of the web weren’t too pretty and neither were my sites but maintaining an online presence for nearly 20 years has taught me many things about art, technology, and everything in between.

INTERVIEWER

Is digital art your first love, or do you have another passion?

ROUGEUX

I’ve always been fascinated with digital art and have been in front of a screen for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of using DOS programs on those giant 5.25” floppies to color pictures or draw random designs. I also got hooked on creating pixel art by immersing myself in Mario Paint for the SNES. Eventually I “graduated” to MS Paint when Windows came around and progressed from there. Any free time I’ve had has been spent in front of a screen playing in some kind of graphics program.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ROUGEUX

Any artist or really anyone who’s passionate about their work. Seeing someone create something they love and really getting into it is always inspirational—whether it’s someone creating digital art or making something physical like a car, leather bag, or a sculpture. Everyone immersed in their creative process is who inspires me.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ROUGEUX

I’m mostly self-taught. I don’t say this to sound pompous. When I was growing up, there weren’t many resources beyond fumbling around with design tools or scouring the web for interesting art. Being an only child, I had a lot of time to myself when I was growing up so I spent that time exploring the tools I could get my hand on.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges you face as a web developer and designer? Do you see the two as being distinct from one another or innately entwined?

ROUGEUX

I think of myself more as a web designer than a developer—though I like to tell people I know just enough about code to be dangerous and I’m great a breaking things. Designing and developing can easily go hand-in-hand. Knowing something about both can be very beneficial. I do mostly design and front-end development (HTML/CSS) so knowing how a page will be structured is very helpful when designing a layout. Similarly, having knowledge about design helps me plan how markup and styles can be structured to accommodate for design changes that may get made in the future.

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe the relationship you see between art and data?

ROUGEUX

I’ve always seen data as more tools in a toolbox—just a very versatile set of tools. Data can easily be seen as something boring and simply informative but as with most things, there’s hidden beauty if you know where to look. The challenge is finding where that is and knowing what to do with it when you find it. Everything has data just as everything has color, shape, etc. They’re other attributes to use.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility in your role as an artist?

ROUGEUX

To be honest, I don’t think about it much but I do strive to be truthful in what I create. Using data makes that possible and even easy. By creating something based on data, I’m forced to stay within the confines of what those data have to offer.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you begin working on new projects?

ROUGEUX

I don’t like to limit myself to any one audience other than those that find curious things interesting. I’ve discovered quite a few interesting audiences with each project I create.

For example, one of my earlier projects was a simple poster showing outlines of all the US National Parks. This was little more than a weekend project and I didn’t give it much thought after posting. I was surprised when I learned that there was a group of people with the goal of vsiting all the national parks and several of them found this type of poster intriguing. I knew that national parks were interesting but had no idea that there was a community so passionate about them. Similarly, when I created my Interchange Choreography project, I learned that quite a few people love reviewing, exploring, and even creating fantasy interchanges in programs in Sim City-like games. I had no idea such a group existed.

I’ve learned that if I found something even remotely interesting, there’s a good chance that there are others out there that find it even more interesting so it’s worth exploring. The possibilities are limitless.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little bit about how you began your career?

ROUGEUX

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been putting my work online for almost 20 years so the web has always been second nature to me. In high school and college, I was always in creative classes like art, architecture, computers, etc. When it came time to start a degree, I chose web development and design and was fortunate enough to get a job while still in college at a small web firm in Chicago. I’ve been with them ever since.

INTERVIEWER

What advice can you give to aspiring creatives who are interested in pursuing a similar pathway?

ROUGEUX

Stick with what you love doing. It sounds cliché but it’s true. There isn’t one guaranteed way to get what you want but if you keep doing what you enjoy, things tend to happen naturally and that seems like the best course of action—at least it has for me.

INTERVIEWER

Your project, ‘Literary Constellations’ provides a fascinating and unique visualised insight into both literature, and writing in general. What do you think using and presenting data in this way can tell us about the craft of writing?

ROUGEUX

Honestly, I don’t think it can tell us much about the craft of writing other than there’s no pattern or consistency to how to write a great story. Trying to read too much into it likely won’t result in any deep revelations—though if there are any, I’d be very pleasantly surprised! This project was something of an accident that I stumbled on when exploring different types of data. I’m just pleased that it came together so nicely and that people enjoy the images.

INTERVIEWER

Keeping with the literary theme for a moment, if you had to draw up an essential reading list everyone should read, which books would make the cut?

ROUGEUX

This is a tough one to answer because I haven’t read the books that most people would probably include in their list. While I enjoy reading, it hasn’t been something I live to do as much as others. Rather than recommending any one set of books, I’d recommend that people read anything that piques their interest—whether it be the classics, adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. Quite often, the “best” books are those that no one recommends and you happen to find one day while perusing a bookstore.

INTERVIEWER

How do you view the relationship between digital art and – for want of a better term – ‘traditional’ art?

ROUGEUX

Art’s art. Digital art is just the latest iteration of the ever-evolving term. Form of art—digital, traditional, and everything in between—informs the rest. I don’t put much weight on the different forms of art because it’s all fascinating.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the digital art industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

ROUGEUX

If I could predict the future, I’d be very rich. Since can’t, I’m not! I don’t consider myself anywhere near knowledgeable enough to try to predict could be a trend or future-defining. However, I’m fairly certain that the constant of “content is king” will continue to be true. How something looks can often be irrelevant if the underlying content isn’t interesting, useful, or informative. This is why the first thing I do for any project is to look for interesting information. Once that’s found, it’s just a matter of finding an interesting way to represent it—though I know that’s no small feat!

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

ROUGEUX

First I have to think of them! I’m ways looking for interesting data from anywhere about anything. I have a few things in the back of my mind that am mulling over but they haven’t blossomed into anything concrete yet. Until the next big thing comes along, I continue to update existing projects like adding new songs to my Off the Staff project in partnership with the OpenScore project from MuseScore, which visualizes the notes in famous classical scores like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony; adding new covers to my color analysis of The New Yorker covers; or adding posters as people request them for others.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ROUGEUX

I’m a terrible writer. How’s this?

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for aspiring artists?

ROUGEUX

  • Explore unfamiliar topics. You’d be surprised what you learn.
  • Experiment with any tool you can get your hands on. You never know when it may come in handy for its intended use or something else entirely.
  • Share early ideas. It’s hard but getting feedback early is very revealing.
  • Be grateful. The world is a big place so be happy when someone takes the time—even if it’s a few seconds—to check out your work.
  • Stay grounded. The world’s not going to take notice of everything you do so keep plugging along and build your body of work.
  • Keep the old stuff and the “bad” stuff. The first version’s usually the worst so iterate often but keep the old stuff. You can draw inpriration even from your own old discarded ideas that you once thought were ugly.
  • Be patient. Sometimes ideas come out of no where like a bolt of lighting and sometimes they take forever. Give them time to germinate and give yourself time to refine them.

 

To see more of Nicholas Rougeux’s work, visit his website.

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Creatives in Profile: Interview with Andrew McMillan

McMillan photo credit Urszula Soltys

Andrew McMillan. Photography by Urszula Soltys

Few writers have exploded onto the literary scene with quite as much acclaim as Andrew McMillan. The South Yorkshire-born poet’s debut collection, ‘Physical‘, was the first ever poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award. The collection also won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize,  a Somerset Maugham Award (2016), an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ award (2014). It was shortlisted the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Costa Poetry Award,  The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2016, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Roehampton Poetry Prize and the Polari First Book Prize. It was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2015. He currently lectures in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University and lives in Manchester.

It is a true honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

MCMILLAN

I just bought a house in Manchester with my boyfriend, so for the first time I feel I can say I permanently live somewhere. I was born in Barnsley in 1988 and lived there until I went away to university, and then a couple more times after university as well- I moved to Liverpool when I first started working at LJMU,  and now I’m moving on to MMU in September which I’m really excited about. I like decorative bowls, which I guess is a lifestyle choice, and I got drunk the other week and told Ben we could get a dog, so that’s going to be a new thing as well.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

MCMILLAN

It was always writing. From being very young, I used to write little horror stories and then moved on to writing poems; there was a magazine called Young Writer, which I don’t think is around anymore, that would publish work and run competitions and send you a proper contract to sign and things like that so it felt like something special. Then I ran away from it for a long time in my teens, I wanted to be an actor, and then a politician, but really what I liked was standing up in front of people and talking to them, and using words in an eloquent way and so when I started reading 20th Century poetry again at college, and I found Larkin and Gunn, then I started writing poetry again.   I’m passionate about all different art forms, I think all artists always wish they were proficient at something else, but I have no other skills, I can only write (and most days I can barely do that); I’m very interested in fashion, in clothing as another form of communication. If I had the right skills I might have liked to have been a fashion designer.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

MCMILLAN

Too many poets to mention by name, but I’m a writer because first and foremost I’m a reader, I read as much as I can, of contemporary poetry; you can be inspired by what you don’t enjoy too, you can frame yourself in active opposition to a thought or an idea as well as taking inspiration from others’ work in a positive sense.

Jon McGregor, and his novels, are the reason that I write poetry the way that I do.

Tom Spanbauer, another novelist, and in particular The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, changed my life.

It’s a terrible cliche but I’m inspired much more by urban dilapidation than I am by beauty, a wreck rather than a masterpiece (that’ll probably be my epitaph too)

My parents, their lives, their warmth, their support, is a constant inspiration. And I’ve only ever wanted to make them proud.

INTERVIEWER

Your debut poetry collection, ‘Physical’ was released by Jonathan Cape in 2015. Its themes of and focus on masculinity seem particularly appropriate for our society right now – much has been made, for instance, of the ‘crisis of masculinity’. What do you think it means to be a man in the 21st Century?

MCMILLAN

Any discussion of masculinity has to really start from an acknowledgement that men still occupy a very privileged place within society; but for young men, particularly young working class men, things are really bad. It’s no one cause, but a confluence of things, such as a stigma around mental health for young men, an economic earthquake in the latter half of the 20th Century that ripped away traditional manual jobs and didn’t replace them with anything,  so what you have is a generation of young men who feel they shouldn’t talk about their emotions or hurt, who can’t see themselves in the role their fathers or their grandfathers might have had, which was to exchange their strength for money in the workplace, and so they feel they don’t have a place, or they feel they don’t know how to be a man, and so that lack has been replaced by, in some cases, getting bigger and bigger at the gym, or getting a ‘status’ dog- a loss of identity or position is being replaced by caricatures of masculinity because these young disenfranchised lads don’t see how else to assert the fact that they exist.

What has been really interesting, as I’ve grown up, is to see the change in fashion in what men are being told they should look like. So a pressure women have felt since the dawn of time, is now being focussed on men. And its often a male gaze on other men – so you know see heterosexual men posting topless pictures on Instagram, not to try to find sex; but so other heterosexual men will comment on how good they look; they need validation, and they’re not getting it from outside, so they’ve got it from each other, in a competitive way I’m not convinced is entirely healthy. As with everything, its also economic; so the idea of the ‘new man’, which came around in the 1990s, was intrinsically tied to wealth and middle-class status, so for young working class men, they’ve had to create a hyperbolised identity in order to survive.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in poetry, what are your thoughts and feelings on the ‘poetry industry’. If we can define it thus. And how would you advise aspiring poets to break out onto the ‘poetry scene’?

MCMILLAN

Poetry is in a really good place now and I look around at my peers and think I’m lucky to be part of a really exciting generation. I think the key thing for anyone to remember is that they only write because they like reading, so keep reading, keep involved, go to invents; BUY as much as you can afford to- if everyone who writes poetry bought poetry we’d all be millionaires. It might seem daunting on the outside, but poetry is a very small, very friendly world and people help each other out, and remember each other too, so showing your face at events or holding the doors open for writers at a literature festival (as I did in Lancaster for three years) is always going to help you out in the community. I would say as well that I think whilst its good to set up your own nights, to read poetry in front of your friends etc, its also important to seek out an audience and criticism from outside people you might already know.

INTERVIEWER

When looking to submit poetry, what are the steps and key aspects to consider before doing so?

MCMILLAN

If its to a poetry magazine/journal- have you read the magazine before, do you know if they take that kind of work, what’s the poetry editor’s name, have you read their guidelines etc- all those basic things that will get you in the good books before an editor even gets to the poems. Also get ready for rejections, you’ll get a lot. Tons of them. Some will say encouraging things, some will just be a little slip of paper saying ‘Thanks but no thanks’. It isn’t a criticism of you as a person, or even that the poem is bad, it just meant it wasn’t the right fit for that editor for that particular magazine. So perseverance too, if you believe in the work, keep at it. Most of the poems in physical got rejected from nearly every magazine you could name, and the book still did alright 😉

INTERVIEWER

In terms of writing poetry, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

MCMILLAN

Not to end the poem too soon, and not to have any sense of where the poem might end, you have to surprise yourself, if its predictable or too simple a journey for the reader to make, they won’t want to make it again.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

MCMILLAN

I always like to steal an answer of Thom Gunn’s when I answer this, in response to a fan letter he said something along the lines of:

‘If I had an ideal reader, I think it would be myself, when I was younger, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and to say to them, its OK really’

I think that’s probably true of me; but I also don’t just want a gay audience, or a male audience – I’m really just writing poems about the body, so they’re for everyone.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

MCMILLAN

Any act which seeks to make an interruption to the crushing and terrifying monotony of being alive.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘poet’ mean to you?

MCMILLAN

Someone who wants to put on some spandex and power slam words into the page

INTERVIEWER

James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – we live in a culture of ‘fake news’. Many have argued that poetry has an element of truth to it that reality sometimes does not. What role do you think poetry has in a world of ‘alternative facts’?

MCMILLAN

Again, I’ll quote someone else much more articulate, Rita Ann Higgins ‘To get to the poetic truth, it is not always necessary to tell the what-actually-happened truth, these times I lie.  Poetry has to have a truth in it, it has to be driving towards some universal truth, otherwise there’s no heart in it, but around that, it can make things up. Poetry shows us the real truth in something, and to do that it might often have to make things up.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley penned the Masque of Anarchy, poetry has been used by writers and artists as a means of revolt against the status quo and to champion causes, giving voices to those who perhaps would not otherwise be heard. What are your thoughts on poetry as protest?

MCMILLAN

Maybe the very act of writing a poem is a protest, its always a peaceful political act in many ways I think, however angry the poem. Poetry shouldn’t just be polemic or rant though, it has to be more nuanced than that I think. But in an age of Trump or ‘strong and stable’ or Twitter or 24hour news, the very act of slowing down, of going to a page with a pen, and saying what can I do with this ancient language that is new, how can I compress and distill, that feels like a protest against something, perhaps.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

MCMILLAN

I’m just finishing up a second collection of poetry which I’m excited about, so hopefully I’ll be able to talk more about that soon.

INTERVIEWER

Aristotle said that poetry was “finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular”. Do you believe in a universal language – or any sense of universal human thought?

MCMILLAN

I don’t think I do, really; I think there are brief moments of connection with another human being, but they’re very often transitory.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

MCMILLAN

I got drunk: We bought dog.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

MCMILLAN

  • Read
  • Read everything
  • Read stuff you hate
  • Read stuff you love
  • Read novels
  • Read poetry
  • go to art exhibitions, watch strange films, talk to strangers
  • put yourself out in the world in a way which allows things to happen to you
  • never get drunk and promise to buy your boyfriend a dog

 

You can keep an eye out for updates on Andrew’s projects and upcoming shows through his website, and purchase copies of his debut collection ‘Physical’ online

Creatives in profile: interview with Laura Waddell

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Laura Waddell writes reviews of fiction, a book column, articles, and short fiction and poetry. She has been in the Guardian, Independent, Sunday Mail, Gutter, Glasgow Review of Books, 3AM magazine, Review 31, and others, while working extensively in literary and translation publishing before joining HarpterCollins as Publishing Manager of Children’s Reference.

Shortlisted as Emerging Publisher of the Year by the Saltire Society in 2016, she is also quite the social media guru – creating a number of innovative literary initiatives such as #ScotEbookDay and #ETeaParty, which was featured as a book marketing success in the book Blogging for Writers.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

WADDELL

I work in publishing, and am a writer, and I live in Glasgow. As for background/lifestyle, where to begin? I grew up in Coatbridge, a post-industrial town outside of Glasgow, and far enough away from it to glamorise living in the city. I studied up to an MLitt in Modernities (essentially modernism and postmodenism), with a focus on William Carlos Williams. I have A LOT of personal projects on the go in my spare time, and write a lot. I’m drawn to writing with observations about the everyday, and to finding the small, subtle, interesting notes in everyday life. As a result I pick up a lot of bits of paper I find on the ground incase anything interesting is written on them. There are some weird shopping lists out there. I find a lot of trash on the street aesthetically pleasing. I like to people watch. I’ve always been better able to connect with writing that focuses on the modern, the grubby, and all that is accessible about cities – I think because classics, or references to flora, weren’t really part of my education. I’m interested in experimentation with form, of making the most with a little, or utilising material in unusual ways. This can often be seen in my poetry newsletter, Lunchtime Poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

WADDELL

Writing is absolutely my first love. Before I could write, I would dictate stories to adults around me who’d write them down. I found a little red notebook containing some of these, and there was one about an octopus tap dancing on a table. In recent years I’ve written articles (politics, opinion), short fiction, and book review, and built up a portfolio of published pieces (the Independent, Sunday Mail, 3am magazine, Review 31, Glasgow Review of Books, The List, a couple of book contributions coming this year such as Nasty Women (404 Ink), others). I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been utterly consumed by the need to write, and times when I’ve felt too dispirited to pick up a pen – like most writers, and people in other disciplines, I imagine. By extension, I’m very invested in reading and the business of publishing, and finding new ways to find and communicate what’s out there.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

WADDELL

Writer-wise, I love William Carlos Williams as mentioned, for finding joy and meaning in the ways that I like, and Eimear McBride for the transcendent feeling of reading her use of language, connecting with her books in a rare and deep way, because the words in their broken-down fragmentary form go right in whole. I’m inspired by writers who have depicted places and people I’m familiar with and who are also masters of style and story, like James Kelman and Janice Galloway. I think Lara Williams is one of the most talented and exciting young writers around today and can’t wait to follow her work as it progresses. I like bell hooks and Rebecca Solnit. There are a lot of women leaders in business, politics, arts and media I look up to, as well as women who are just beginning their careers and taking on, tenatiously, areas that are still unbalanced playing fields in terms of gender. I’m also very inspired by the energy of friends who are also writers, publishers, or artists from other disciplines such as music, performance and theatre.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

WADDELL

I had a teacher in primary school called Mrs Shields, who taught our small class to always look up when walking around a city, for that’s where surprises and beauty in architecture can be found. I had a history teacher in high school called Mr Jenkins, who encouraged my love of learning and told us fascinating stories. As an only child (until I was 11) I spent a lot of time with adults.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve worked extensively in the literary and publishing industry – what do you think are some of the key challenges facing the industry at this point in time?

WADDELL

It’s not always an easy industry, and nobody joins it to make a fortune, but the upside of that is that it’s often a workforce of people who are very passionate about what they do. I’m glad to hear more talk about diversity in publishing, not only in terms of gender but in race, and I think it’s a problem that stems from the makeup of the publishing workforce itself, which may not always be able to imagine why anyone would find writing interesting when it comes from a background that is not white and middle class or upper class. A lot of stories have never been told, and I want to read them, and I believe there’s an appetite for them. Other than that, when it comes to trade, there are all kinds of issues around discounting – when authors make little money (and this is decreasing), it’s rarely because publishers are rolling in money themselves (although contacts should always be as fair as possible), but because of squeeze at the other end. I hear a lot about the FUTURE and TECH and whilst it’s essential to find new ways of publishing in an era where the media landscape is rapidly changing and digitising, there’s an awful lot of vague noise full of internet-related words that sounds like change for the sake of change instead of looking at better ways to simply publish what people will want to read and make them aware it exists.

INTERVIEWER

What power do you think writing, literature – and art in general – has in supporting and encouraging aspiring artists from marginalised communities?

WADDELL

For me, as a working class kid in an area of poor resources and endangered libraries, what literature I could get my hands on was very special to me. Access to art, both creating and consuming, broadens options in life, as well as empathy and self-expression, and it shouldn’t be the preserve of the rich. Art is about communicating, and what is communicated forms the landscape we live in – what we can expect or demand from our politics, the perspectives we read, the stories that are told and on the record throughout history. Scottish PEN are working on a project now called Many Voices, which sees writers hold writing workshops with groups of people whose stories often aren’t told in their own words – young offenders, refugees, and others. I’m suspicious of any politician who says working class people (or other groups) need only simple things in life. No, I want more. And I’m suspicious of anyone within these groups who says the same thing. Both are ways to control and restrict, to peg people into small, stereotypical boxes. And as a reader, I want writing that is the most innovative and beautiful, I want more of it, and I don’t believe that comes from any one demographic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility in your role as a writer?

WADDELL

Not in a way that is separate from the ethical responsibilities I feel as a human being. When I write articles, occasionally I want to highlight a cause or examine a prejudice. When I write fiction, I write whatever comes out, but it will naturally reflect my beliefs, and I am very interested in class and gender. 8. Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write? Not particularly. Perhaps myself, a little younger.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little bit about how you began your career in the publishing industry?

WADDELL

I was very fortunate to get a paid internship assisting a writer (Sara Sheridan) facilitated by the wonderful Adopt an Intern. I stayed on, and it was a wonderful and generous experience, where I learned a lot about marketing and PR, the media, the needs of a writer and how to work with them. I’m now a Publishing Manager with my own list of titles. Paid internships are important. They make it easier for a wider range of people to enter the industry. As I believe diversification of the industry is an important part of diversifying the books we publish, and that is key for staying relevant and commercially viable in the present day, publishing as an industry should be paying people for the work that they do at this early stage, for their own good.

INTERVIEWER

What advice can you give to aspiring creatives who are interested in pursuing a similar pathway? To anyone who is interested in getting into publishing, I strongly urge you to: A) read as widely as possible. Having an understanding of the terrain is important.

B) Stay aware of industry news, such as the free bookseller.com newsletter digest.

C) Network, network, network. Opportunities arise this way. Twitter is a fantastic way to follow people who work in publishing and see what they’re up to. Go to book launches.

D) Be kind to everyone. I’ve always remembered who was welcoming to me when I was young and shy and feeling out of place at the very beginning of my career. Publishing generally is a supportive and jolly industry, and we’re mostly all in it together for the love of books.

E) Develop hard skills. Nobody is impressed that you’ve used social media – talk about copywriting skills, data analysis, project management. Learn Excel!

F) Look after yourself. Life/work balance is hard when you love what you do, but you need rest and time to let your mind wander.

INTERVIEWER

What, in your opinion, makes a “good” book?

WADDELL

I don’t think there’s one good answer to this. Some books I like are very different from each other. I think a good book is one a reader loves, and readers have very different desires. I review books, and when I review I am looking for some basic requirements – depth, structure, eloquence. But the books I’ve loved the most almost always split between 1 and 5 star reviews on commercial sites.

INTERVIEWER

If you had to draw up an essential reading list everyone should read, which books would make the cut?

WADDELL

I really don’t think I could do that in brief, here, sorry! Here’s just one I found directly instructive – Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. I snuck it into a book cover once.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

WADDELL

I’ve been really thrilled to see the success of 404 Ink, publishers of Nasty Women, an anthology of writing by women that has captured the zeitgeist of women-led protest and initiatives to raise each other up. I’m honoured to be a contributing writer. The crowdfunder was 369% funded and backed by Margaret Atwood. Another example of small indie publishers going out to publish what they really believe in are Own It!. Both these publishers have talked of publishing what they’ve heard other people dismiss, but they’ve known there is a commercial and cultural appetite for, and that often means diversity. As I’ve said above, I think diversification is the key to publishing’s continuing relevance and success.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

WADDELL

I’m currently guest editing an issue of The Drouth magazine and enjoying commissioning writers for it. Other than Nasty Women, I have an essay in another book coming out in 2017 about literary criticism in the digital era, and a piece in the first issue of brand new magazine Marbles, which has a focus on mental health. I’m continuing to write fiction, articles, and review. I want to see more writing from Scotland translated, more international relationships developed between Scottish artists and artists of other countries, and more investment in smart, commercially sustainable publishing – but that’s a very long term goal!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

WADDELL

Varieties of female moths lack wings.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

WADDELL

To young writers, keep going. Try not to lose or flatten your early or original style (I’ve never written as easily as I did when I was a kid), but take criticism on board. Do not be dissuaded by rejections – everyone gets loads. I was rejected by a magazine I later went on to be an assisting editor on. Build a portfolio. Pitch. Put yourself out there. But be respectful and follow guidelines when submitting. Read the worst reviews of writers you adore, and bear them in mind when you read reviews of your own work. Find what’s at your core that you have to express.

Creatives in Profile: Interview with John Blackmore

 

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We’re absolutely thrilled to introduce a special Creatives in Profile interview – with the winner of our inaugural poetry competition, ‘Haikus for the NHS‘.

The project was launched early in 2017 to use the power of poetry as protest – specifically, the power of haikus as protest – in support of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).

Somerset-based poet and musician John Blackmore was announced as the winner of our competition ahead of the national demonstration to support the NHS on Saturday 4 March.

Blackmore’s poem was chosen from a shortlist of haikus by the poets Eva Reed, Juliet Staveley and Sarah Purvis. You can read his haiku, along with those that made our short- and long-lists online.

A semi-finalist in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk award, and contributor to a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the Victorian Dorset Dialect poet William Barnes, Blackmore is part of the Poetry Society’s ‘Young Poets Network’.

It is an honour to present this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

First things first, many congratulations again on winning our ‘Haikus for the NHS’ prize. Could you tell us a little about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle?

BLACKMORE

Thank you very much! Gosh…I don’t know what to say…

I’m 25 years old, and live and work in rural Somerset, which is where I grew up. After university, I returned home to train to teach. I’ve been teaching English in secondary schools for four years and I’m currently head of the departments of English and Drama at the school I attended as a student…if you had told me that ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you!

When I’m not marking, I love singing and playing guitar. I’ve only recently started turning my hand to poetry, but have written songs for years. I was lucky enough to be a semi-finalist for the BBC Young Folk Award in 2011.

My rural upbringing and surroundings are a huge part of who I am; I’m not at home in a city and I don’t think I’ll ever seek to be part of the homogenous masses commuting for a 9-5 job in the metropolis. I don’t know yet whether that makes me strong-minded or foolish! I suppose I strike a pensive, solitary figure living and working in a community which most young people leave, and yes, it can be lonely, but I don’t think I’d be happier anywhere else, and it is a great place from which to write.

INTERVIEWER

What drew you to our poetry project and inspired you to get involved?

BLACKMORE

A couple of things really.

A number of my family members have worked as nurses, including my mum, but I never really had need for a hospital until last summer. In July, just before the summer holiday, I broke my finger during sports day at school. Over the following weeks, I had consultations and x-rays and physio appointments, and despite the discomfort and the inability to drive or play guitar, I found the hospital a fascinating place—like school, really: all life can be found there, a myriad of stories, and the determination of staff to do their best for all in a stressful, challenging environment really caught my attention.

More recently, just before Christmas, I was diagnosed with something more worrying and underwent CAT scans and surgery. It was while I was recovering at home, off work, that I found the poetry project and felt literally moved to write. Even when the NHS is not attacked by politicians and the media, we take healthcare so much for granted. It is not until we are put in a position of personal vulnerability or frailty that we finally take notice and value what we have.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry and writing – your first love, or do you have another passion?

BLACKMORE

Poetry snuck up on me at primary school. I liked being able to express myself in rhyme—I think all children do—and playing with words. I didn’t enjoy school until my year-two teacher gave me confidence in my writing. For my seventh birthday, my parents bought me the “Children’s Illustrated Book of Verse”, and from then I was hooked! While I have enjoyed writing songs and analysing poems since then, it’s taken me years, decades, to find my own poetic voice. I’m certainly still developing as a writer.

I suppose my other passion would be education. I’m the bossy eldest brother (or so they tell me) to four younger siblings, so I’ve grown up imparting knowledge, sharing ideas and helping others develop skills and confidence. Becoming a teacher was a natural step, and was no great surprise to my friends and family. Helping ignite passion and curiosity within someone else is incredibly powerful, rewarding and addictive.

INTERVIEWER

Who (and what) inspires you?

BLACKMORE

Studying literature at university and now teaching English at a secondary school has given me a fair share of literary heroes. I think place and identity are particularly important to me, perhaps due in part to my Irish, English and Welsh roots, so poets who have captured a landscape or a group of people have often gained my attention. I gravitate to the likes of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Clare, but also the insecurity of Victorians like William Barnes, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins and Tennyson. Twentieth Century poets like Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have also captivated me, as have those that I’ve gained a new appreciation for through teaching, like Imtiaz Dharker, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage.

On a day to day basis, though, it’s often the little things that inspire me to write poetry: a funny turn of phrase I’ve overheard, a half-caught smile, an interesting scene that plays out before my eyes. A lot comes down to personal experience, too, and my interactions with people and places. My song-writing draws more on the landscapes of my native west country which I suppose comes from my folk music background.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, poetry is for?  And what do you make of ‘poetry as protest’?

BLACKMORE

I think poetry at its heart is a form of communication. While you can be motivated to write an opinion piece or a novel, though, I think you must be moved to write poetry. The transmission of thoughts and emotion in often stringent poetic forms excites me as a reader and writer; distilling words and meanings in such a way that they retain personal resonance, but can still be interpreted in a myriad of ways, is both incredibly cathartic and empowering. It also inspires great empathy and consolation, too.

As a document of a time, place, person, a collective or individual feeling, then, poetry remains unrivalled. It is a medium that demands intimate reflection, forcing a deeply personal response from its readers, and so is a powerful vehicle for social change. To this end, all poetry is protest.

INTERVIEWER

‘Haikus for the NHS’ was primarily launched to support the UK’s National Health Service as it faces one of its greatest crises in decades. How important do you think institutions like the NHS are for our society?

BLACKMORE

I think institutions like the NHS are the corner stone of our society. You can’t wish for more in life than health and happiness, so offering a system of welfare for all, from cradle to grave, was an astonishing achievement born out of the horrors of war and widespread poverty. It is remarkable. Sadly, the foresight of our forefathers has been betrayed by the short-term thinking of successive governments. The sooner health—and education for that matter—are elevated from their current position as political footballs, the better.

INTERVIEWER

On the topic of what is important for society – what role do you think poetry has to play in the UK today?

BLACKMORE

Good question. I think poetry is frequently considered an unconscious voice. In our modern world of sensationalism, fake news and Facebook likes, the most read literature forms—journalism and fiction— must be “in your face”, almost militant and explicit in terms of meaning, which weakens the message it communicates and its quality.

Poetry must be the refuge of self-reflection, the point of quiet questioning, that nagging conscience that remains a touchstone of what really matters in life. It is a form that is underestimated, doubted, but remains ever-faithful: like riding a bicycle, people neglect poetry for years and years, but, at key moments in life: weddings – funerals – birthdays – it is poetry that people turn to for expression that is testament to memory, experience and meaning. If you ask children on the spot whether they like poetry, they look at you as though you’ve asked them whether they like going to the dentist. Nevertheless, with a little help and encouragement, I would say almost every child, and every person, can read a poem and take away meaning, some personal reference or wider understanding. Poetry is, and remains, integral to what it means to be human; it is vital that it continues to be so.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you? Could you tell us a little about any future projects you’re working on?

BLACKMORE

I wish I knew! I go through phases of investing time and energy into each of my interests: music, poetry, teaching. I’m just finishing my Master’s degree in Education and I’m looking forward to recording a CD in the coming months, thanks to the William Barnes Society in Dorset. I’m also continuing to write and pursue publication online and in print…when I’m not in the classroom!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

BLACKMORE

He listened, smiling, remembering once more.

 

Make sure you check out Blackmore’s music on soundcloud and award-winning poetry online. And, to see his haikus for the NHS in action, watch the video below!

 

Creatives in profile: Interview with Papertrail Podcast founder, Alex Blott

 

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It’s no secret that the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook are always looking out for new and exciting creative projects. So when we stumbled upon the brand-spanking-new (and quite-ruddy-brilliant) Papertrail Podcast our minds were immediately filled with an assortment of creative possibilities.

Founded in 2016, Papertrail Podcast is a monthly book podcast featuring interviews with authors and creatives about their favourite books.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview with the founder of this fabulous podcast, Alex Blott.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

BLOTT

Sure, I’m in my late 20’s (just got pushed into them by my birthday). I studied English Lit and Creative Writing at undergrad and then got my Masters in Professional Writing. More than anything, despite the course titles, I think my studies turned me into a better reader, and it was probably being introduced to  different writers by the course that gave me the idea for the podcast in the first place. I don’t know I’ve spent that much time thinking about my own ethos, but the site was founded to help me grow my reading and knowledge of writers, so I suppose ‘keep learning’?

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

BLOTT

All sorts of people. Writers and Podcasters, obviously. But also people who are out there getting work done. I love watching documentaries or reading articles that show people hard at work on something they obviously care about. No matter what that it is, there’s always something you can learn from watching that process.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Papertrail Podcast – what inspired you to first set the podcast up; and how has it developed from then?

BLOTT

Sure, Papertrail is a monthly podcast series where I speak with authors and other creative people about the books that matter to them or have influenced them in some way. We do our best to keep the show spoiler free, but throw up a warning if there are any major spoilers in the show. The three books chosen by my guests are intended to serve as both an insight into who they are as people, but also to introduce listeners to authors they might otherwise never hear of.

In terms of what inspired it… Years ago I was listening to a bunch of literary podcasts and I realised that all of my favourites at the time were American. That’s not so true anymore, but at the time I started thinking how great it would be to have a show like those that wasn’t so US centric. It took me three years to actually make my own show, and in that time I found a lot of podcasts that were doing exactly that, but I thought I had an interesting idea so I pushed on with it and here we are!

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Papertrail Podcast is a monthly book podcast featuring interviews with writers and creatives about their favourite books. Check it out! 

INTERVIEWER

What does it take to pull together a literary podcast?

BLOTT

It’s a bit of a daft thing to say, but you need to have a genuine interest in your topic. Not just a basic ‘I like reading’ kind of interest (although that’s a great place to start). You need to really care about producing something good, and have a solid idea of what you’re trying to achieve with each episode. A lot of people start podcasts and then burn out because they didn’t really know what they wanted it to be, or they weren’t as enthusiastic about the topic as they thought. One of the reasons it took three years for me to make the show was because, although I knew I wanted to make a literary podcast, I didn’t know what the show looked like. It was only once I really narrowed it down and focused on my desire to broaden my reading that I had an idea good enough to execute on. Knowing that the show’s central purpose is to introduce people to new authors and books influences the way I interview, the way I read the books, and the way I talk about them.

INTERVIEWER

How do you plan and prepare for each new episode?

BLOTT

Sourcing authors takes some time. I keep an eye open online for people who are writing interesting stuff or attracting a lot of great praise. Then I’ll read some of their stuff to get a better idea of who they are and what they’re interested in. Then I’ll get in touch and, if they’re keen to record, set a date. I read all of their chosen books ahead of time as well, which isn’t something I planned on doing when I started the show. Turns out if only one person has read the book it can be hard to keep a conversation going, who knew! After I’ve read the books I make a few notes, but I try to keep them very simple so that I’m always engaged in the conversation rather than re-reading what I’ve already written. If you do that you risk missing the good stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any other podcasters you listen to regularly for new ideas? Or any like-minded websites that you’d recommend checking out?

BLOTT

Absolutely! I could talk about this all day so I’ll trim it back to three shows that I really enjoy and respect.

First, Other People with Brad Listi. This was the show that got me thinking about what I wanted to achieve with my own podcast. Brad uses a very similar line of questioning with every one of this guests, and if you looked at the format you’d think it doesn’t sound all that interesting: ‘Where did you grow up? What were like you like as a child? Were your parent’s creative? What’s your writing practice like.’ They’re simple questions, but really they’re there to open up Brad’s guests and allow him in to talk about much more personal stuff. It’s a very genuine show, and that made me uncomfortable when I first started listening to it, but now it’s really something that I aspire to. If you check it out, persevere through Brad’s monologues, they get better as you get to know him more.

Second, The Longform Podcast. This is a fantastic series focusing on creative non-fiction writers and journalists. The podcast itself is an extension to an already brilliant website. It’s got three hosts, all with their individual interview style and approach, and the people they have on are simply fantastic. Longform was basically my gateway to better and more varied non-fiction reading and I am hugely thankful for it. In terms of what I learn from it, I enjoy the way they interview their guests, mixing in personal questions and anecdotes with more deep-dives into the work itself. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out how to do consistently well on Papertrail, but I’ll get there.

Finally, Literary Friction. This is a fantastic monthly podcast series that, for me, shines the brightest of all the current British literary podcasts. The show is consistent, professionally produced and excellently formatted. Every episode revolves around a theme, and the hosts, Octavia and Carrie, always speak on whatever topic they choose with equal measures of humour, sincerity, and intelligence. They have some fantastic guests on to make their own book recommendations and talk about their own work. It’s fantastic.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

BLOTT

I work as a freelance copywriter so pretty much just sat in front of the computer getting words down. I tend to read in the evenings or when work lulls, and then once a month I spend half a day recording and editing a new podcast episode, getting it ready for release.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a podcast should be for? Why are they important?

BLOTT

I don’t know that they ‘should be’ for anything. Podcasts are just like any medium, it’s all about what you can do with them. That said, I think they flourish as a source of information and learning because they’re so accessible and can be listened to on the move or in the car or while you work.

As for why they’re important. I think a lot of people can find time to listen to a podcast when they might not be able to watch a video or read a book. Also, it’s a growing creative medium, and we need as many of those as we can get!

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see podcasts playing in this new “digital era”?

BLOTT

Greater minds than me are trying to figure that out at the moment, so I’ll bow out. If you’re interested in this question though, I heartily recommend Gimlet Media’s ‘Startup’ series. In particular, the first season and later episodes that examine Gimlet itself, and how they’re responding to the explosion of podcast popularity.

INTERVIEWER

When there are so many podcasts, and so many different voices speaking at once – how do you try to make your voices heard – how do you cut through the babble?

BLOTT

It comes back to what I said earlier about knowing what you’re trying to do with the show. No matter your niche, be it a pop-culture round up, a weekly marketing trend discussion, or a DnD play-along with your friends. The best shows, the ones that rise to the top of the rankings, have a specific goal in mind, and execute on that week in, week out so that their listeners know exactly what to expect.

Also, sound quality. It makes such a difference, nobody wants to listen to your voice through a haze of static or the sound of your PC in the background.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

BLOTT

Reading time. I want to give every book its due and make sure I’m soaking in what it has to give, but sometimes a recommendation comes in that’s a bit of a tome and I know I’m going to have to grind it out and make extra time. And of course, now and again, you get a book that you’re not a huge fan of, but I haven’t found that to be a big challenge , because I’m reading them in the light of the person who recommended it, and that’s always interesting.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

BLOTT

Bloody hell.

I guess for me it’s getting into something and looking to innovate and improve every day. It’s got a lot to do with knowing in your heart that you can do it a little better or a little more interesting. You just need to figure out how. Which can also cause a lot of anxiety, so it’s important to pair that with an understanding that what you’re doing now still has worth. What’s the saying? Perfection is the enemy of done?

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for the podcast? Any exciting projects or episodes in the pipeline?

BLOTT

Yeah! Lots of great guests lined up, I was pro-active towards the end of 2016 with booking authors ahead of time so that’s freeing me up to start thinking about what else to do with the website. I’ve been speaking with a few friends about adding some written interviews and other work, which would be loads of fun if it does take off.

I’ve resolved to get better at Twitter as well. I am a terrible Twitter user. But I’m better when I have someone to talk to, so if you’re reading this and want to talk books then @PapertrailPod and we can have a natter.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

BLOTT

Secret biscuits, gobbled while she’s away. (I hope she doesn’t read this)

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring podcasters?

BLOTT

Lightning round!

  1. Do research before you start your show. Know who you like, who you want to emulate, and why they are successful.
  2. Soft launch first. Don’t do a big song and dance for your first episode if it’s your first time doing it. Put it on social, share it with your friends for feedback, but focus on a good show first. Marketing second.
  3. Audio quality matters. Invest in a decent microphone.
  4. If you’re going to use Skype, get people to record their own audio at their end and then splice it together. Don’t just record Skype.
  5. Don’t splash loads of cash on editing software. Audacity is free and excellent. Use the money you saved to buy a better mic.
  6. Don’t start a podcast to make money. If it happens, great, but most podcasts either break even, or lose you money.
  7. Join the community. There’s a fantastic network of hobbyists and professionals talking about podcasting online. I spend plenty of time lurking the podcasting subreddits and asking questions when I need help. It’s by and large a friendly and supportive community, and it’s also a great place to find listeners for your show!

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Julia Forster

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Julia Forster was born and raised in the Midlands. She studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick and has a Masters in Creative Writing from St Andrews. While at Warwick, she was awarded the Derek Walcott prize for creative writing. She works in publishing, but has also been a magician’s assistant in Brooklyn, a nanny in Milan and a waitress in Chartres.

Her debut novel, What A Way To Go, follows the exploits of 12-year old Harper Richardson, as she navigates the tumultuous paths of childhood, while also attempting to fix her divorced parents’ broken hearts. Set against the backdrop of the high hairdos and higher interest rates of the late 1980s, Forster’s novel has been described as “fresh, touching, truthful and laugh-out loud funny” by best-selling author Deborah Moggach.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

FORSTER

I live with my young family in mid Wales, 150 miles due west of where I was brought up in the east Midlands. We live in a cottage, which we share with the local wildlife: there’s a large maternity roost of pipsistrelle bats in our loft and we often have little visits from mice and bird-life. I try – and fail – to grow vegetables, read a lot and attempt to look busy when I hear the kids running up the stairs.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

FORSTER

I am a keener reader than I am a writer, which is perhaps not a bad thing? I guess that might also have to do with having small-ish kids (they’re nine and six years-old). After all, it is far easier to pick up a book to read in between small tasks than it is to delve right back into an imaginary world and start writing again…

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

FORSTER

I’m lucky to have some amazingly creative friends. I met the poet Retta Bowen at an Arvon course when I was 19 and she’s been a permanent source of hope and inspiration ever since. I met the all-round creative genius Philip Cowell when I was 24 and he’s likewise lit up the path when I haven’t known where to tread next. I couldn’t have written a word without the inspiration of my friend here in Wales the author, editor and campaigner Angharad Penrhyn Jones.

Books are a continual source of inspiration, of course, but when you’re faced with a creative dilemma, nothing beats a phone call or sharing a leathily strong coffee with a friend who can both challenge and counsel you.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

FORSTER

I had an English teacher in Year 10 who used to tell ghost stories which were so petrifying, some pupils had special dispensation to leave the class while he told them. He made a significant impression on me, but it wasn’t until I was at university that I began to write in earnest. I was lucky to be taught at the University of Warwick when the writing programme there was in its relative infancy and as such I would often have entire office hours to myself with David Morley. That’s when I began to write poetry. Maureen Freely and Russell Celyn Jones were also teaching at the time, and it was in one of Russell’s workshops that I wrote the germ of What a Way to Go in response to his provocation to ‘write about something traumatic’.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your debut novel, What A Way To Go?

FORSTER

It’s set in 1988 during the summer of the ‘Lawson Boom’ when house prices became eye-watering, along with interest rates (and I’m sure many of us may have also shed a tear when we’ve looked back at what we wore in that era too!) Twelve year-old Harper’s parents Mary and Pete are divorced. Harper is trying to fix their broken hearts but she also enjoys her blossoming independence – both politically and emotionally. It’s a book with a big heart and a retro feel.

INTERVIEWER

It is often said that “all writing is autobiography”. How closely do you find your own, personal experiences of childhood are tied to those of your novel’s central protagonist, Harper? Is it easier to write about your life experiences through the prism of fiction – rather than, say, memoir?

FORSTER

When I was nine, I announced that I would ‘cook’. I took a packet of shell-off prawns from the freezer and attempted to make prawn cocktail. The marie rose sauce was easy: tomato ketchup and mayonnaise to a 50:50 ratio. What I didn’t know was how you defrost shellfish, so I sucked each prawn until they’d defrosted, spat them out and then served them in the sauce. I honestly didn’t think that this was bonkers.

I don’t think it’s a plot-spolier to say that this event is repeated in one scene in the novel! What I suppose this demonstrates is that a) everything is copy and, in the case of What a Way to Go, b) I was always searching for a way to inhabit that child-like imagination and point of view. Adults do tend to complicate matters.

I chose to use the prism of fiction because, frankly, I wasn’t ready to publish a memoir but also because, like many childhoods, there was plenty of emotional drama but not enough to warrant the cutting down of trees to print it out in multiple copies. An earlier iteration of this novel was in fact a full-length autobiography of 80,000 words. The manuscript serves as excellent sound insulation in our echoey cottage.

INTERVIEWER

As you write and prepare to write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

FORSTER

Imagine if you could get some kind of inoculation against self-doubt, or a course of confidence pills that you could pop while writing! Straight up, I believe that the crucial thing when writing an initial draft is not to judge yourself or your writing. Believe in yourself in epic proportions. It is all too easy to get downbeat and for the oxygen to be sucked out of an embryonic project. Just keep going.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

FORSTER

I write from a place of authenticity. I wouldn’t undertake anything I haven’t thought about from an ethical point of view.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write?

FORSTER

A man in his fifties who is sitting on the tube wearing a frown and a bowler hat.

INTERVIEWER

Reading What A Way To Go, the wider historical and social context are subtly fed in – weekends in Hardingstone are “low voltage, thanks to Maggie Thatcher”, for instance. For you as a writer, how do you balance the central focus of the novel – the coming of age story of a child of divorce – with the wider story of England’s changing society through the 1980s?

FORSTER

I read Andy McSmith’s There’s No Such Thing as Society which helped me to choose the historical era in which I set the novel. It was my intention to show, without it being too invasive, how the increasing commercialisation of childhood and pop music hoodwinked a generation of kids, but also how the rising prices of housing in the UK coupled with easy credit – our flexible friend – became the enemy to happiness and skewed our sense of what it means to be free.

INTERVIEWER

In a novel driven so much by characters, what are some of the challenges you, as a writer, face in bringing them to life? And do you develop any kind of relationship with the characters on the page?

FORSTER

I cut several characters out and amalgamated a few after the first draft because the chorus was too large. I wanted Harper to have two good friends as counterpoints – Derek and Cassie – but also I wanted both parents to have confidants – Oona and Patrick. As the novel is told in the first person, there is quite a lot of dialogue as this is one of the few options that were available to me for Harper to find out information that she wouldn’t otherwise have known. I did develop a relationship with the characters, especially Harper, who I felt very fond of by the end because of her ability to straight-talk, and tell a joke. I can’t tell a joke for toffee; I always forget the punch line.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

FORSTER

I don’t have another persona who helps me write. For me, it is a matter of getting myself as far away from the keyboard as possible as it were, and becoming more of a conduit. As soon as ego starts to get in the way, things become murky. The ideal is to have a direct line to the writing in hand and not to over-think. It’s an intuitive process, but it takes a lot of practice and a large part of my writing career to date has been about failing and learning from that process.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

FORSTER

I think there will always be authors who experiment, set trends and defy norms. I don’t think any of us can predict where the form of the novel is heading. That is what makes reading a book so exciting.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

FORSTER

I am working on a project on the theme of sorrow.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

FORSTER

Piano washed out by spring tide.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

FORSTER

  1. Believe in yourself.
  2. Turn off the Internet.
  3. Read books intimately.
  4. Pretend you know what you’re doing.
  5. Remember: you have other body parts aside from fingers.
  6. Caffeinate regularly.
  7. Celebrate each small achievement.
  8. Be supportive to fellow authors.
  9. Invest in wax earplugs.
  10. Ignore housework until it reaches biohazard level.

 

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To purchase What a Way to Go visit https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1782397523/ref=s9_simh_gw_g14_i2_r?ie=UTF8&fpl=fresh&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=0J8NWC2D9RANBKKCY5QB&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=26de8ef0-2ad7-412c-8634-6cd03b7b73e2&pf_rd_i=desktop

Follow Julia on Twitter

or visit her website here!

 

 

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Pondering Media

 

In the latest of our ‘Creatives in Profile’ interview series, it is an honour to introduce you to Karen and Michael Healy – the brother and sister duo behind the award-winning original comedy production company, Pondering Media.

Karen Headshot

Karen Healy – Pondering Media’s founder, CEO and perennial lead performer.

Karen Healy is Pondering Media’s founder, CEO and perennial lead performer. Her work on Pondering’s award-winning shorts has earned her strong press attention, including write-ups in the Irish Post. Her credits include RTE’s IFTA-nominated Irish Pictorial Weekly, numerous roles with famed immersive theatre company Reuben Feels, and countless other adverts, shorts, and performance art pieces. She’s also a fixture in the London stand-up comedy scene. Karen is a passionate advocate of women in the arts and is a big supporter of recently launched Bechdel Theatre Festival in London.

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Michael Healy – seen here on set of his debut cinematic short, ‘Would You Like Some Toast’

With a background in marketing, Michael Healy has helmed numerous projects for commercial clients over the last five years, as both writer and director, including commercials for radio. With a focus on comedy, his online shorts have attracted press attention in both the UK and Ireland. He holds a first class degree in Film Studies from Trinity College Dublin and Would You Like Some Toast is his debut cinematic short.
Founded in 2014, Pondering Media has gone from strength to strength – building a reputation for the weird, the eccentric, and the sometimes upsetting. You can check out their videos on Youtube, and follow them on Twitter here. We hope you enjoy this detailed interview…

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

 

PONDERING MEDIA

Michael – I’m Michael, I’m a writer and film director working mainly in comedy. I come from a background of hopeless, awful, soul-destroying marketing work. And I guess my ethos is to have a unique voice, but to put the audience first. I want to avoid self-indulgence, and also avoid ever working in marketing ever again.

Karen – I’m Karen, I’m a producer, actor and new to the scene stand-up comedian. I come from a background of dropping out of college and happily working tearing theatre tickets, selling ice-cream and pointing out where the toilets are. I suppose my ethos is depicting entertaining, strong female characters. I’ve never been drawn to roles in which the character’s main function is “the girlfriend”, which is very difficult to come across. Michael and I are on the same page when it comes to what makes an appealing character and we share the same sense of humour, which is great.

 

INTERVIEWER

Have you always known you wanted to work in comedy?

 

PONDERING MEDIA

M- You know, I didn’t really set out to be a comedy specialist right away. Like most obnoxious filmmakers, I wanted to make heavy stuff about the grim realities of life that only middle class college students ever understand. But my natural response to basically everything dark in life is to laugh. Funerals, wars, executions – all full of awkward hilarity. And when you’ve got that kind of pathology about you, you’re stuck in comedy forever.

K- I knew that if I ever decided to get back into performing it would be in comedy. I think it’s my default setting. It comes naturally to me to always see the humour in a scene, regardless of its premise. Nothing beats the buzz on a set where everyone is laughing. And who doesn’t like playing with prop moustaches?

 

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

PONDERING MEDIA

M -Fellini is my stock fancypants answer to this question (not sure how fancypants you guys want to get). He’s one of the few artists that managed to be both absurd and extremely human. I also go back to Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismaki as comedy directors all the time. Both masters of depicting sublime, painful failure in comedy.

K -I just finished watching Horrace and Pete and was totally blown away. I think Louis CK is incredible at creating socially important conversations and fairly representing all sides of that particular argument.
Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City are two heroes of mine at the moment. They have created a very funny show that depicts an unwavering female friendship and makes little to no reference to relationships or career-pressure. Hurrah!

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges facing aspiring artists – particularly comedians – today?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- Actually, I think aspiring artists have more advantages today than artists have had in the past. It’s easier to network, easier to create, easier to find a platform. I think artists are usually their own worst enemies, and I include myself in that. I’ve found producers and executives are quite open to giving people opportunities – but they want to find organized, audience-focused people and have no time for self-indulgence and daydreaming. Which sucks, because those are great craic.

K- I can only speak from my experience but at the moment there’s such a huge platform for comedians who are starting out. You will find an open mic every night of the week in London which is great for practice. The only thing is it can be mildly soul-destroying. Most of the people you performing to are other comedians waiting for their turn. It’s a good idea to keep an eye for any competitions for new-comers. “Funny Women” are a fantastic organization who provide support for new female comics.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about Pondering Media, and how you established the production company?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- Karen and I were both drifting from gig to gig, her as an actor and me as a writer, and at around the same time we both realized we needed a proper plan and a bit of direction or we’d never get anywhere. So we got organized, started handling our own corporate gigs, published some stuff for the web, had a couple of viral bits do well and now we’ve just wrapped on our first full, cinematic short. All inside a year or so.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any projects or films you’ve made that you are particularly proud of?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- I gotta be boring and say the film we just completed is my favourite. We had a bigger crew than we’d worked with in the past and the whole process was a huge learning curve. Seeing it finally get proper laughs from audiences is the best feeling in the world.

K- I have to agree. I’m very proud of how “Would You Like Some Toast?” turned out, majorly thanks to our producer, Richard Wade. He gathered a brilliant cast and crew and it really is a credit to them as it was made on such a low budget.

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On the set of ‘Would You Like Some Toast’

INTERVIEWER

What are the key differences between performing on stage to a live audience and performing to a camera? How do you adapt your performance depending on the different medium?

PONDERING MEDIA

K- I have more experience acting on screen so performing on stage for me is still pretty daunting, but exhilarating at the same time. I think you have to be aware of adapting your performance depending on the atmosphere in the room and the general reception you’re getting from the crowd. In stand up anyway.
As for acting on screen, sure there’s room to try something in several different ways but there’s almost just as much pressure as you’re often under time constraint and everything is heightened on screen. You can’t fake it when the camera is fully zoomed in on your face.

INTERVIEWER

A lot of comics and spoken word artists talk about a fear of ‘dying’ on stage – has that ever happened to you, and how do you cope with the fear of that happening?

PONDERING MEDIA

K- There is always the fear of that happening. I don’t think that ever goes away. Some jokes could land well with an audience one night and could be greeted with bemused silence another. I had a gig recently where I completely bombed. I was half way through my set and I realized this was not gonna get any better. But I gave it my all, finished it and bowed. I was obviously slightly disheartened afterwards but woke up the next day singing, “I BOMBED LAST NIGHT!” That’s when I really felt like I was doing stand-up. You can’t grow as a performer if you don’t have the occasional crap gig.

INTERVIEWER

For you personally, what makes a ‘good’ gig?

PONDERING MEDIA

K- I think when there is a happy, up-for-it atmosphere it makes performing a lot easier. When the audience gets on board with immersing themselves in the night it feels more like you’re having a chat with them rather than talking at them. I’m delighted whenever something new gets a laugh, that way I can go home and expand on it. I’m also relieved when I manage to not burst into flames.

INTERVIEWER

What is comedy for?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- Comedy’s all about exploring the parts of our lives that don’t fit in with how we like to view the world. We like to think that we’re part of a clear narrative, with proper goals and challenges and destinations. Comedy is about showing up how dumb that idea is.

K- Comedy is an opportunity to be more honest than you would be in everyday life. Being honest is what the audience relates to, it’s what gets them on your side. Tears and laughter are one in the same. Laughter is just another form of release and that’s what comedy is for, to provide the audience with a release, an escape.

INTERVIEWER

In our digital world, with so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard.

PONDERING MEDIA

M – Slowly and steadily, and with the support of collaborators and other pros. And also, by incessantly emailing people who are higher up the ladder than us are and asking them for favours. That’s probably the most important part.

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Still from Pondering Media’s ‘Would You Like Some Toast’

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a bit about some of the future projects you’re working on?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- We’re finishing up the fundraising for our next project, a short set in a political campaign hit by a sudden scandal. There’s a lot of prep work to do now, given the size of the budget and the extent to which we could catastrophically screw it up, so it’ll be a few months before we’re in production. And we also have a top secret, mad ambitious project in development too, but we can’t talk about it until we’re sure it’s actually going to happen or we’ll look sad.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for aspiring writers and comedians?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- 1. Be a professional and treat it like a job, even if that means faking it.

  1. Understand that producers and editors invest in people, not just projects. They want to support people who are easy to work with and have a plan.
  2. Have a plan. Even if it’s a crap plan. You’ll eventually figure out what a not-crap plan looks like.
  3. Be brutal with yourself and always think about your audience. There are no points for creative intent or grand gestures. If the audience can’t walk in and get a strong impression of you and your work right away, you’re wasting your time.
  4. Don’t be a diva, and treat your collaborators with respect.

K- Just keep doing it. Even if you’re dying on stage every night, just keep getting up there and doing it, you will eventually find your voice. That’s what I’m doing.

Creatives in profile: Interview with the Extra Secret Podcast

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“A podcast should be for anything you want it do be” Extra Secret Podcast. 

Just over two years ago, two men had an idea. It was a humble idea. It was a bold idea. It was almost as a good an idea as building your very own robot butler to help you run your high school full of teenage clones of famous historical figures (but nothing could be quite as good as that idea).

Their names were Eric and Dan, and for the past two years they have been the masterminds behind a truly awesome, and also beautifully simple, podcast – the Extra Secret Podcast, to be precise.

Now, being a secret, we wouldn’t want to give too much away at this point, except to tell you to check out Eric’s fantastic list of tips for aspiring podcasters.

It’s an honor to introduce this detailed interview.

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves, your background and ethos.

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and have lived all over the Metro Detroit Area. I also lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Background: Never graduated college, went to a trade school and edited TV commercials for a number of years. I moved to Wisconsin where I became a professional body piercer for six years. Both of those things made me exceptionally unhappy so then I moved back to Michigan where I got a job at a comic book shop. If you listen to the podcast I’m notoriously out of touch with what’s going on in the world, so Eric finds things that get me worked up. Ultimately, I’m not a super angry person about everything but I do get frustrated with the world

ERIC : I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life. I went to elementary (primary) school, high school, and some of college with Dan. Ultimately, I graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in English and promptly got an office job that didn’t remotely have anything to do with my degree. I grew up on a steady diet of comics, cartoons, and sci-fi and that’s pretty much stuff that I’m still interested in to this day.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: I would have to say that a lot of my friends inspire me. I know it seems like an easy answer but I’ve somehow managed to be in close proximity to several musicians, visual artists, other podcasters or performers that do really amazing work. So I kind of feel like the odd man out (laughs). My friend Dot Org composed our theme music and my cousin composed the music for our After Dark episodes. I’m a big fan of British writer Warren Ellis, he’s always doing something interesting. My parents are some of the funniest people I know whether they know it or not.

Oh, and Supreme Leader Trump. All hail Trump! That last one was only half true. I live in constant fear of waking up this November to discover that our portion of the world has gone Mad Max. So there’s a definite drive for me to get as much good stuff produced before the world ends.

DAN: That’s a tough one… I read a lot. So, a lot of stuff that inspire me are things I read in comic books which I know can be seen as childish. I read a lot of stories of hope, lot of stories of not giving up, things of that nature. With my background of having a few problems in my life, it’s good for me to read those sorts of things. And it definitely helps when I get other people interested in the same stuff. Feels good.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about the Extra Secret Podcast – what inspired you to first set the podcast up; and how has it developed from then?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: A long time ago when I was still in Madison, I had started listening to some of director Kevin Smith’s podcasts. I really enjoyed what they did. It was just them having a conversation. I had come back to Michigan a few times and me and Eric had conversations about starting a podcast and doing it over Skype; but it never really came together until I moved back. I had another co-host lined up back in Madison but the conversation wasn’t there, it wasn’t really working. How has it grown? We’re less nervous now. We have a good rhythm. We’re good at taking seemingly innocuous things and filling an hour long show with our brand of weirdness.

ERIC: Some of my friends were podcasting, I loved what they were doing and I wanted in on the action. That sweet podcast action. As Dan said, we talked about starting our own podcast and it finally came to be when he moved back to Michigan. Since we’ve been doing it the format hasn’t changed much. We used to do four to five episodes a month, but we were both starting to burn out and finding the time became difficult. Twice a month is much more manageable. On occasion I’ll do an Extra Secret Podcast: After Dark episode which is just me and a rotating co-host. Sometimes it could be a friend or mine or someone I want to interview. Those are a nice break from the regular format, but the core show will always be me and Dan.

INTERVIEWER

How do you plan and prepare for each new episode?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: Usually, the second we stop recording I’ll think of three other things I wanted to talk about. In the time between recordings I’ll keep my eyes open for funny news stories that I think we’ll be able to squeeze some humor out of. Other times I’ll have something weird or funny happen to me that will make for a good story on the podcast. I know it sounds cliché, but I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times just in case something happens and I have to commit it to paper ASAP. It also helps to structure the upcoming episodes so our conversations have some semblance of direction.

DAN: (laughs) Eric tells me what we may talk about! Basically the first half of the show is news, notes, gripes; the back half of the podcast is a bit more structured with a set topic. Eric is really the producer of the show, he gives me some direction. I’m notoriously forgetful from years of past substance abuse problems so he has to constantly remind me. I usually do some prep right before the show so I’m excited to talk about things. But the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by Eric.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: I’m usually up around 4 or 5 AM everyday, which is awful. I’ll check my news feeds to see what’s going on in the world while I get ready for work. My work day usually starts around 8 and I get out for the day around 5 PM. My downtime is spent reading, catching up on the handful of TV shows I watch, and listening to music and so on. I’m very much a homebody, which a polite way of saying “hermit.”

DAN: I get up around 8 AM, feed the dogs, eat breakfast, get to my shop around 10:30. It depends on the day. There’s always something new coming into the comic shop so it keeps it fresh, something to look forward to. I’ve never had a day where I don’t want to be there. I love working there. My boss is cool and so are the customers. I don’t watch a ton of TV aside from stuff we discuss on the podcast. Pretty much my days revolve around nerd shit.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a podcast should be for? Why are they important?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: I think a podcast should be for anything you want it to be. The great thing about podcasts is it’s a very open-ended thing. These days with people wanting to be “YouTube famous” or “podcast famous”…if you want to try and do it for a living that’s cool. But the problem with that is that you eventually start sounding like everyone else, because you’re trying to broaden your appeal. Podcasts are important because it’s one of the last things you can do that has no censorship. You can do whatever you want, you know? We’ve never been censored. We’ve talked about all sorts of weird stuff on the show and that’s not something you’ll hear on mainstream TV or radio. It’s very important for podcasts to have that freedom.

ERIC: I agree with Dan, it can be anything you want it to be. We generally keep things pretty light but on occasion we do get serious and talk about things that are bothering us. Medical issues, depression, and so on. I think podcasts are important because it’s a creative outlet. For me, I don’t have the time to sit down and write like I used to. I’d love to be able to sit down and write for eight hours each day but it’s not in the cards right now. But I do have time to sit down with my friend for an hour every couple weeks and put on a show. It certainly scratches that creative itch.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see podcasts playing in this new “digital era”?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: To me, it’s almost like a resurgence of the Golden Age of Radio. There’s this new medium out there that’s potentially without limits. I really dig that shows like Welcome to Night Vale and Thrilling Adventure Hour are essentially just new radio plays where the listener has to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. And that applies to other podcasts too. There are podcasts for virtually any subject and I think that it makes for a more engaged listener.

DAN: It’s really kind of replacing radio. People are getting bored a little bit with pop music or talk radio. It all bleeds together. With a podcast you can listen to someone on the other end of the globe. We’ve never been closer together than we are now. Sometimes uncomfortably so.

INTERVIEWER

When there are so many podcasts, and so many different voices speaking at once – how do you try to make your voices heard?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: We’ve never cared about that. We have never decided that we’re going to go out and make people listen to us. We don’t advertise. It’s tough to reach a vast audience without dumping a ton of money into it. Good content will propel the show forward. Ultimately if you’re trying to do a podcast to get famous, have a million listeners…you’re doing it wrong.

ERIC: Yeah, we’re really just doing this for us. Making each other laugh is pretty much the mission and if anyone is listening, that’s really incidental. We have a small (very small) audience and they seem to tolerate what we’re doing so we’re happy with that.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: Finding the time to record is always fun. Keeping a regular schedule for episodes can be difficult as well. When we stopped doing weekly episode we were shooting for the 15th and 30th of the month but even then we had to revise that to a “twice a month” schedule. I always worry that we may repeat ourselves, or that we’re getting complacent, or we’re just straight up boring.

DAN: Time. Getting the energy to do it. We used to do it weekly and that got to be very taxing. We were worried about running out of thing to talk about. We worried about not having enough time to do research for things. Finding quality stuff to talk about that’s not the same as everybody else is nothing thing. We try to focus a bit more on weird news sources and stuff that interests us. Stuff we’re passionate about.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: For me, it’s just the art of making anything. Admittedly, It’s a pretty broad definition. But I do think there has to be some kind of intent behind the action of making something. It should evoke larger ideas. For our podcast we’re creating a larger narrative about two assholes forever trapped in each other’s orbit, two grown men barely in control of their own lives.

DAN: I’m not really much of an artist in the traditional sense. When I was younger I was into art and photography so I probably would’ve had a better answer for that then (laughs). Now, to me, whatever you decide to go out and do… I’m very literal in the sense that creativity is just creating. That’s me. I wish I had some mystical answer for you but that’s not how I am.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for the podcast? Any exciting projects or episodes in the pipeline?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: We always talk about Motor City Comic Con in May. That’s always a good time. Mostly we take it week by week. We don’t tend to do big projects because we don’t have a ton of time on our hands.

ERIC: I’m sure I’ll be doing more After Dark episodes in the future, I’m always looking for interesting people to talk to. In the past I’ve had conversations with the musician Brook Pridemore and artist/storyteller Morgan Pielli both of which are archived at extrasecretpodcast.com!

Creatives in profile: Interview with Paul M.M. Cooper

Paul Cooper

Paul M.M Cooper was born in South London and grew up in Cardiff, Wales, in what he has described as a “house full of books”. He is a graduate of the acclaimed creative writing courses at both the University of Warwick and the University of East Anglia.

His book, River of Ink, was one of the biggest literary deals at the London Book Fair in 2014 and tells the story of Asanka – a 13th Century Sri Lankan poet forced to translate a piece of mythology for a tyrannical king. The book (you can read our review here) is set around historical events, and is based on years of research Cooper conducted during the time he spent living and working in Sri Lanka.

He has written for magazines and websites, and has also worked as an archivist, editor and journalist.

It’s an honour to introduce this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

COOPER

I’m a novelist and language enthusiast from Cardiff. I write books about art and history and the heroism that comes from ordinary people.

 INTERVIEWER

What was your childhood like?

 COOPER

It was good! I grew up in Cardiff since I was 6, which has left me with an affinity for rain and a distrust of places with flat countryside.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be besides a writer?

COOPER

I wanted to be a nature photographer at one point. I think being a writer is similar to that in a lot of ways, but you don’t have to go outside if you don’t want to, which makes it superior.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

COOPER

The likely people are authors like Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Teju Cole and Roberto Bolaño.

INTERVIEWER

Your debut novel, River of Ink, was famously the subject of a multiple-publisher auction in 2014 – could you tell us a little more about your journey from writing the first words of the book down through to getting that book deal?

COOPER

It took about 5 years between those two points. I lived in Sri Lanka for some time, I did two degrees and nearly lost my marbles. There were quite a few points when I wanted to give up, but the story really demanded that I finish it. I met my agent at an event showcasing some of the work by UEA graduates, and spent a few months frantically editing and re-editing the book to send to them. Once they offered me representation, we took the book to the London Book Fair. I was working as a reporter at the time, and managed to convince my employers that there were some stories that needed writing there – so I got to go there and meet the editor from Bloomsbury, who went on to bid against another publisher. I started fielding a lot of calls, and most of the deal was hashed out in the stairwell of the office I was working at, near Southwark Bridge.

INTERVIEWER

And what about afterwards – is it strange handing over your book to the editors and waiting for it to be published? What’s it like seeing your name on the shelves of bookstores?

COOPER

It is strange to have something that is a very private project suddenly pored over by scores of others. Publishing is quite a slow industry, though – so I’ve had some time to get used to the idea. It’s great to see the book on the shelves. I’ve only had one weird moment so far: while I was standing in a shop I saw someone pick up River of Ink, and my heartbeat shot up suddenly. I’m not usually prone to things like that, but I had to leave the shop because it freaked me out.

INTERVIEWER

Who are (and who have been) your most important teachers?

COOPER

I’ve had some great teachers over the years. Definitely Amit Chaudhuri and Rebecca Stott, who took me under their wing a little at the UEA, and Maureen Freely and George Ttoouli at Warwick. I also had a couple of teachers who really encouraged me to write in secondary school. I think behind every writer is a person who once said ‘that could be you’ – for me it was some great English teachers.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve studied writing at both Warwick and UEA – what is your view on the value of creative writing courses?

 COOPER

They are what you make of them. Like a music school or dance school, they can initiate you into a craft, but they can’t give you the final spark that makes you really great. For me it was good to spend time around people who took the craft of writing utterly seriously, and focus all my time on getting better at writing. Ultimately you have to do most of the ‘teaching’ yourself, but it’s a great place to do it. I think there’s a lot of valid concern going around about the idea of certain people being priced out of becoming writers, though – and it’s important that voices from outside the academies are getting the same opportunities as those within.

INTERVIEWER

You spent a year after graduating from the University of Warwick living in Sri Lanka – where River of Ink is set (albeit some 700 years earlier). How big a part did that year play in helping you craft the novel? And what was it like to come back to England and write and edit the novel with the inevitable distance away from a place that is so vividly brought to life in your book?

 COOPER

A lot of the book was actually written in Sri Lanka, and especially in the Polonnaruwa Library, which is in view of the old citadel wall and the palace across the canal. As well as the story, I’d also filled notebooks with notes and sketches, and I took photos and videos constantly, so I had a lot of raw material to work from whenever my memory failed me back in the UK. I couldn’t have written this book without spending large amounts of time wandering the ruins of Polonnaruwa and imagining how it once might have looked, the noise and colour in its streets – so it was very important for me. Part of Asanka’s struggle in the book is also about trying to write about a place distant and unfamiliar to him, so the distance fed a little into my character’s frustrations also.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘writing process’? What do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

 COOPER

Just getting words onto the page is important. I heard someone describe this recently as ‘piling sand into the sandbox to build things out of it later’ – this is usually how my first drafts work. I write a lot, fill scenes with everything I can, and then winnow things down later so it is light and strong in the final draft.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind as you write?

 COOPER

I have lots of readers in mind: they all sit on my shoulder in a little chorus. My favourite reader is the enthusiastic lover of stories, who likes things to be exciting and page-turning. My least favourite reader is the pedantic historian of thirteenth-century Sri Lankan history and culture, who caused me no end of headaches. I believe I’ve written a book both these readers can enjoy, however.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

COOPER

Yes – especially when depicting another culture and time. I have a horror of embodying the classic leering orientalist gaze, so I found a lot of tension between accurately depicting the time and place, the sensibilities of the characters, and avoiding the kind of otherising that often takes place in books written in South Asian settings. The book is rabidly anti-imperialist as I see it, and my villain Magha embodies a lot of what I see to be poisonous in the colonial and neo-colonial projects. I was determined that modern Sri Lankan people should be able to recognise their country in the pages of River of Ink, but also that the book should embody certain universal ideals.

INTERVIEWER

River of Ink explicitly deals with the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” – and with the incredibly important role writers and artists play in holding leaders – and indeed society as a whole – to account. And yet we live in a world where writing freedom is increasingly restricted; not only through restrictive laws in countries where writers can actually be imprisoned, but also in supposedly democratic countries where writers like James Kelman and Julian Barnes have pointed out that it’s harder and harder to get novels published that are different or challenging to the establishment. Kelman even said the UK media establishment “colludes in censorship and suppression” – a view Noam Chomsky would probably sympathise with. What’s your take on writing and creative freedom?

COOPER

I think there’s a will to liberation that inheres in all writing and art, no matter what uses it’s put to, which is a big part of River of Ink. Artist around the world are currently struggling beneath autocratic regimes, and their art is often the mode they use to express their dissent. However even in democratic countries there’s a lot of implicit suppression involved in the publishing industry. This isn’t conscious I think, but more systematic by virtue of it still being a very white industry. That’s only now really beginning to change, and it’s great to see writers of all backgrounds beginning to get to speak. Even generally liberal institutions like the creative arts and publishing are necessarily self-perpetuating entities, and are therefore reactionary to some degree – so it can really be about the market forcing them to change. Go buy books from people whose voices aren’t being heard, in other words!

INTERVIEWER

Where does the power of literature come from?

COOPER

I’d say the way it allows us to imagine ourselves into situations wholly different to our own. People who don’t read novels miss out on some of the most profound acts of imaginative empathy, and I can’t help but think it makes you a more inflexible and dogmatic person – which is bad for the soul I believe.

INTERVIEWER

What is a writer for?

COOPER

Telling stories!

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

COOPER

The novel has been on the verge of death for 100 years, and presumably will be for another 100. People in publishing can be pretty pessimistic, but I don’t see anything to be gloomy about. People are now consuming literature in more different forms, from a wider variety of sources, and countries of origin, than ever before. I think narrative television has replaced cinema as the dominant storytelling form at least in the North Atlantic – but the novel is still intricately bound to people’s desires to enter other lives and experience beauty.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

COOPER

It’s a little too early to talk too much about it, but people who enjoyed River of Ink will get a lot out of the next book too. I’m writing about a different setting, and even adding in a modern element to the historical story. But I hope to strike the same balance between storytelling and artistry that I think has struck a chord with readers of the first book.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

COOPER

The desire to make things no one else thought could exist.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

COOPER

  1. Read everything, and not just the things you like
  2. Stay playful, and write the books you want to write, not what you think people expect or would respect you for writing
  3. Stay humble and learn your craft: read about writing
  4. Learn about good stories, not just about good prose
  5. Stay in for the long haul. It takes most people (myself included) at least 10 years to go from beginning writing seriously to getting published
  6. Almost all who try disqualify themselves by giving up
  7. Show your writing to people and develop a thick skin as soon as possible. people will help you if you’re not sensitive about it
  8. If you get bored with a project, it’s probably because you wandered away from what you loved about it in the first place. it happens a lot
  9. Lots of people will tell you it will never happen
  10. Whatever project you eventually want to write, start right now!

 

Creatives in profile: Interview with Iain Maloney

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In the latest of our ‘Creatives in Profile’ interview series, it’s an honour to introduce fantastic author, Iain Maloney.

Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and now lives in Japan. He is the author of three novels, First Time Solo, Silma Hill and The Waves Burn Bright and has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and the Dundee International Book Prize.

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

MALONEY

I’m originally from Aberdeen, Scotland. I lived there until I was 23 and studied English literature at the University of Aberdeen. Then I moved to Glasgow to do a Masters in Creative Writing. I’m currently based in Japan but I come back to the UK regularly to do various book related events.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing – your first love, or do you have another passion?

MALONEY

Writing is what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. I first began writing songs when I was about 12 or 13 years old but I’ve never been a very good singer and growing up in the countryside there weren’t many people interested in starting a band, so I began writing poetry, then prose, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I was writing for about 20 years before my first book was published and creativity has been central to my life for so long, I couldn’t imagine a life without writing.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

MALONEY

From a writing perspective, people like David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce – writers who do things with language that is startling and original. They, to me, are the pinnacle of what can be achieved with a pen and a blank sheet of paper. When I was wallowing in my formative years, Iain (M) Banks was a huge influence on me and even today I still find fossils of that influence in the way I plot or manipulate voice to achieve certain effects. His death was a huge loss to literature.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

MALONEY

Probably the most important initial moment for me as a writer was joining the University of Aberdeen Creative Writing Society in 1998. None of the people I knew at school were interested in writing and until then it had been a solitary activity. Meeting others who were as passionate about writing as me, people who liked nothing more than sitting around talking about literature, reading each other’s work and critiquing it seriously (while partaking of a drink or many) opened up a new world. It confirmed that this was what I wanted to do. I was lucky that, at that time, Alan Spence and Sheena Blackhall were working at the university. They both gave me help and advice which I will always be grateful for. Later on, Zoe Strachan became my tutor at Glasgow University. She’s a wonderful teacher and I still use many of the tips and techniques she taught me.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your two novels – First Time Solo and Silma Hill?

MALONEY

First Time Solo is the story of Jack Devine, a farmer’s son from the North-East of Scotland. In 1943 he joins the RAF and leaves home to train to be a pilot. The book follows him through his training as he makes friends and starts a jazz band. When another trainee dies Jack has to choose between morality and loyalty. It’s a book about friendship and identity, set against the backdrop of World War Two.

Silma Hill is a very different creature. Set in late-18th century rural Scotland, it tells the tale of a village torn apart by accusations of witchcraft. Centering on Reverend Burnett and his daughter, Fiona, it’s a Gothic tragedy set during a time when the clash between science, religion and superstition made for a volatile society.

INTERVIEWER

As you write and prepare to write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

MALONEY

Planning. I wrote a couple of novels before First Time Solo and they were messy, woolly affairs because I set off with a character, a setting and a fair wind, and quickly got lost. I don’t plan down to every last detail but I need to know roughly where I’m going and have a general idea of how to get there. When Captain Cook set off around the world, he had a good idea where he was going and where he would end up. The excitement and adventure was in what he might discover on the way. My first two attempts were more like hacking into a thick jungle with a machete until I was exhausted, lost and too disheartened to go on.

The other important thing is to always remember that a draft is just a draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect from the start. Even once a publisher has accepted a manuscript you’re only at the start of the editing and rewriting process.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

MALONEY

That’s a tough question. On a basic level we have an ethical responsibility because we are humans, part of human society, and everyone has ethical responsibility. We often like to think we are outsiders, observing and commenting, but that’s a myth. We also have an ethical responsibility to our subjects, particularly when dealing with people or events that are / were real. My latest novel, The Waves Burn Bright, is about the Piper Alpha disaster. 167 men died when the oil platform exploded in 1988. By taking on that subject I have a huge ethical responsibility to their memory, to the survivors and to the families. I also have an ethical responsibility to the facts of history. The events surrounding Piper Alpha are set. I cannot mess around with them for my own ends. By choosing to deal with a real disaster rather than creating one from my imagination, I took on the responsibility of getting it right.

On the other hand, ethical responsibility has come to mean, particularly on social media, not offending people. I see a rise in self-censorship. Writers are afraid to commit to a political or moral position, are afraid to tackle some of the most vital issues of our time or take on controversial subjects because someone might get offended and kick off on Twitter. A writer’s job, for me, is to examine the world around us. My publisher, Adrian Searle, recently wrote that writers need to be sociologists as well as artists and he’s right. We live in a time when politicians and corporations believe they can do what they like because no one will hold them to account. The majority of the press certainly won’t. I think writers should. We have an ethical responsibility to engage honestly with our stories, with our subjects, not to shy away because a handful of people won’t agree. We saw this in Scotland where writers who engaged openly and publicly (on both sides) with the Independence Referendum became the victims of some atrocious abuse. What they had to go through was awful but what is worse is that so many others were scared of joining the debate because of the abuse that awaited them. That’s sad and it means the trolls are winning. We can’t let that happen.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write?

MALONEY

I don’t, though my publisher wishes I did. Publishing works by selling books to a readership and publishing companies rest easier when a writer complies and aims everything at that demographic. Doing what Iain Banks did and splitting your work into science fiction and non-science fiction undermines the way books are marketed at the moment. This is entirely sensible and if you have a genre you love and want to stick to, great, but my inspiration ranges wildly over genres and eras and characters and stories and I want to write them all. It’s much more acceptable for film directors to follow a story regardless of the genre (take Tarantino, no one complains that he jumps genres, even within the same movie. No one told David Fincher that because he’d started with Aliens 3 he couldn’t do Seven or Benjamin Button). It’s a shame that the pressures on publishing – both financial and social – are pushing the industry away from risk-taking. I understand that and sympathise, but at the same time it’s frustrating.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that “audience engagement for a writer is a strange thing” – could you expand on that at all; how do you adapt to those rather strange situations where the audience attending public appearances haven’t read much – if any – of the writer’s writing?

MALONEY

I was talking about the difference between, say, a stand up comedian and a writer. The comedian knows within seconds whether a joke has worked or not and can react accordingly. For writers, it might take years for all the opinions and reviews to settle into a general response to the book, by which time we’re usually two or three books removed. So when we do events – at least at my level – you’re talking to people about something they haven’t read, and maybe won’t read for months even if they buy it then and there (we all have the ‘to be read’ shelf).

It may be different for writers like David Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, but I’m not nearly famous or successful enough to have hundreds of advance copies circulating the media so with a couple of exceptions everyone at my launch will be completely new to the book. In some ways it makes the writer’s job even easier. You are introducing the book – what’s it about, why did you write it, give an example of the text. There’s an element of being a salesperson.

INTERVIEWER

How do you find your work as an editor and journalist influences and compliments your work as a writer?

MALONEY

Editing and journalism – specifically reviewing – has helped my writing enormously. It’s much easier to be objective and critique someone else’s work. It’s easier to see the flows and ebbs of a text, to find bad habits and good techniques when I have no emotional attachment to the story and the characters, and then it becomes easier to see those things in my own work.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

MALONEY

I think the financial pressures on the industry are causing it to be too risk-averse. Independent publishers like Freight are doing wonderful things, finding new writers, taking on books and projects that the big companies wouldn’t touch, but they are working under such difficult circumstances that it’s hard to see how the situation can be sustained indefinitely. We’re experiencing a reallignment in the industry which is making everything uncertain and unpredictable but for writers the most important thing hasn’t changed: people haven’t stopped reading books. What’s changing is the means by which writers and readers connect. While financially writers are taking a huge hit, creatively it’s an exciting time.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

MALONEY

Loosely, it’s the urge to create something new, something that hasn’t existed before. I try not to examine the urge to closely in case I scare it away.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

MALONEY

As a writer these days you have to be pro-active, both online and off. Independent publishers don’t have big marketing divisions and big budgets, so gone are the days when a writer can put a book out into the world and consider their job done. We’re expected to engage with our readers, to be active on Goodreads, to join in the conversation on sites like this, to be on Twitter and Facebook promoting our work. We need to be out doing readings, going to spoken word events, building a reputation and a presence. Some people are resistant but I love it. The act of writing is solitary but being part of a wider community is a lot of fun.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

MALONEY

I have my own writing voice which developed naturally, and comes through most when I’m writing non-fiction. In a novel the most important voice is that of the characters – whether I’m writing first, second or third person, it’s the character that’s telling their story, not me. My most recent novel is written from the point of view of a woman at various stages in her life and she has to sound authentic, to speak in her own voice – she can’t sound like a 35 year old Scottish man. We all have our ticks and habits, the kind of rhythms we like and they’ll always be there – it’s why you can recognise a David Peace novel in a few sentences, for example – but one of the main aims of the editing process is to remove the ego of the writer as much as possible from the story. David Mitchell is the master of this – his prose takes on the persona of his character so completely.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

MALONEY

My new novel, The Waves Burn Bright is out in May 2016 so we’re doing final proofreads just now, and I’ll be tinkering with the text until my publisher tells me to leave it alone. Most of the year will be devoted to promoting that. I’ve got a few ideas for my next novel but I’m not sure which one to pursue and I don’t want to jump into anything until I’m convinced it’s the right direction. I’ve got a poetry collection called Fractures coming out later in the year and I’m putting together a short story collection.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

MALONEY

Not a good one.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

MALONEY

There are only two that are important: write every day and don’t be afraid of mistakes. We learn by trying, we learn by failing.