Creatives in profile: interview with Sean Leahy

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Named as one of the ’50 Funniest People on Twitter’, Sean Leahy has built quite the following on the Twittershphere as @thepunningman. Appearing on Buzzfeed, Comedy Central, The Poke, Huffington Post, Funny or Die and TimeOut (among others), he has recently published his debut children’s book, The Monster Cafe via award-winning publishers Unbound. 

Illustrated by Hungarian artist Mihály Orodán, The Monster Café is a humourous tale that deals with pre-conceptions, pre-school excitement and pre-tty big monsters.

INTERVIEWER

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

LEAHY

I’m 36, and I live just outside the gates of Hampton Court Palace with my wife and two children. I earn a crust as a Graphic Designer, and have done for the past 15 years.

INTERVIEWER

Beyond writing and comedy, what are you passionate about?

LEAHY

Football, punk rock and Guinness. The order is dictated by Tottenham Hotspur.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

LEAHY

Shepard Fairey (the mind behind Obey Giant), for taking something as raw as street art (despite my disliking that term) and punk and making a phenomenon out of it. And Jerry Seinfeld for doing the same with comedy.

INTERVIEWER

Was it always your intention to wind up writing jokes for a living?

LEAHY

Well, it’s not a living yet. I had a real interest in jokes, wordplay and the structure of comedy from a young age, and I had a real interest in ‘making’, be it art, design, writing, film, whatever, in order to get through the working day, rather than doing something I had no interest in.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve published The Monster Café, through Unbound books. Can you tell us a little about where the idea for the book first sprang, and how it evolved?

LEAHY

Having two children means I’ve sat through several kids books, and while there are loads of utterly brilliant and beautiful ones, there are SO MANY that are just complete and utter dog eggs.

It’s trite to say “Christ, I could do better than that”, but I think I have, and hopefully the kids agree.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your experience of publishing with Unbound been like?

LEAHY

The’ve been amazing. The book simply wouldn’t exist had they not afforded me the opportunity. They’re really interesting, in that they crowdfund all of their books, which allows the authors total creative freedom.

As designers, both Mihaly (the illustrator) and I wanted to be able to lay the book out ourselves, and we were able to do that and make all the decisions about how it should look. Once the money was raised we delivered the finished book to them and they made sure it was just as we envisioned it.

It’s taken a while, but we’re really pleased with it.

INTERVIEWER

It seems old hat to say it in some ways, but generally speaking the ‘mainstream’ publishing industry has been somewhat risk averse when it comes to championing and publishing new books that aren’t in someway “copies of novels that are themselves copies of previously successful novels”, as Julian Barnes once noted. What opportunities do you think Crowdfunding offers to aspiring writers with new, unique or otherwise quirky ideas?

LEAHY

It’s meant a lot. You just need to take a glance at a some of the books Unbound have published to see there’s a wealth of topics you don’t see on the shelves in Waterstones. Obviously they’re not only way to go about crowdfunding your book, but the fact they’re a publisher (and a respected one at that), means the buyers take them seriously too. They’re not just putting out any old rubbish, they consider each and every project that is submitted to them, but really champion those who don’t usually get given a voice in this industry.

INTERVIEWER

What makes a good crowdfunding project, in your opinion? And what should authors considering following this route themselves consider before starting their own campaign?

LEAHY

Make it stand out. You only need to scroll the length of one screen these days before you’re bashed over the head by someone asking for your money. Give them a valid reason to part with theirs, and make it colourful.

INTERVIEWER

Your creative partner in The Monster Café is Mihaly Orodan – could you tell us about your artistic partnership; how did you know Mihaly’s illustration style would complement your writing?

LEAHY

Mike (to his pals, and some enemies) and I worked together at a tiny creative agency just outside London. His main task was creating infographics and icons for super dry financial companies. But he also drew caricatures for all the birthdays and leaving cards. Once I saw what he was really capable of, I basically twisted his arm until he agreed to illustrate the book. He’s now has an agent and is working on his fourth book since mine.

His work is really incredible. To be able to put your full faith in someone to just ‘get’ what you want is quite rare, but that’s what I was able to do. I basically laid out the entire book with blank pages and small notes on what should be on each spread. I think I had three amends from the first draft he sent me. It was astonishing.

INTERVIEWER

You’re extremely active on Twitter – what role does social media have to play in the professional lives of artistic and established creatives? Is it an inevitable part of our world with which we must participate?

LEAHY

Twitter is the reason the book is here, make no mistake about it. I’ve been lucky enough to gain a decent following on there from writing jokes and little “micro-sketches”, and that audience has meant I had someone to sell the book to. Obviously friends and family make up a big part of who fund a project, but the fact there was an active group of people who enjoy my writing enough to subscribe to it meant I had more eyes to put the project in front of.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

How do you tell a good joke?

LEAHY

Start with the punchline and work backwards

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

LEAHY

I never get to go to the cinema any more, so definitely that.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

LEAHY

Both have value, but I’ll go cult.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated book/film?

LEAHY

The Red Dwarf novels

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated book/film?

LEAHY

On The Road – It’s SO short and I still couldn’t finish it.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

LEAHY

Jon Klassen. His children’s books, particularly I Want My Hat Back, are brilliantly dark and hilarious.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

LEAHY

I can clap one handed.

INTERVIEWER

A bad film review can sink a new director, whereas a good one can catapult someone from obscurity into stardom. Do you personally feel any ethical responsibility as a reviewer?

LEAHY

I am a very enthusiastic recommender. I will bore the ears off anyone that will listen about anything I love. There is value in criticism though, as long as it’s valid.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

LEAHY

She opened the door.
SURPRISE!
Goose.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for writers?

LEAHY

Write all the time.
Write again.
Read it back, twice.
You’re never finished.
Write again.
Tea and biscuits.
Consume everything, even the bad stuff.
Invite criticism.
Listen to criticism.
Write again.

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Creatives in profile: interview with Ben Armstrong

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Ben Armstrong is a poet from the West Midlands, UK, who specialises in surrealist, hyper-real and absurdist pieces. An alumnus of the renown Warwick University Writing Programme, his poem ‘The Year of the Apple’ was featured in The Apple Anthology (Nine Arches Press, 2013), shortlisted for Best Anthology in the Saboteur Awards. His debut collection Perennial is out now through Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, and has drawn praise from a number of right-on poets and publications, including Luke Kennard, George Ttoouli, and David Morley, as well as the magazines Eye Flash Poetry, and Here Comes Everyone (oh, and ourselves, of course).

In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace unpredictability and recognise order within otherwise apparent disorder, in what is an extremely fun, engaging, witty and anarchic poetry collection. Given that we love witty anarchy as much as the next creative collective (it’s among the best kinds of anarchy if you ask us), we were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Armstrong himself and add him to our community of creatives who have shared their stories and innermost secrets with us.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARMSTRONG

I was born in the Black Country, West Midlands, in the early 1990s and still live locally. We’re famous for our pork scratchings, ale, canals and the steel industry (amongst other things). I grew up in Stourbridge, which doesn’t have so much of an accent – people tend to find it hard to place me unless they’re familiar with the Midlands. I’ve just bought a house with my partner so my current lifestyle is mostly settling in there, working, keeping fit and writing for my next book.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARMSTRONG

Music is my biggest passion although I’m a much more perceptive listener than a musician. I was in a band for a few years recently and I spent so much time listening to our mixes, tweaking my EQ – focusing on the really minute details. I loved designing our album booklet and packaging. I guess a lot of people would find that stuff boring? For me, the beauty has always been in the detail. In this way, my love for poetry and music stem from the same place. They’re both very liberating mediums that I can really get stuck into them on a micro level, whilst still having a finished piece at the end of the process.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

ARMSTRONG

On the whole, people who really dedicate themselves to their art. I find that highly commendable, especially in the modern world where money doesn’t exactly come easily for most artists. I’m inspired also by people who have a very strong artistic vision and stick to it, especially across a collection of pieces. We live in quite a quick-fire culture but I still really value full-length collections, records, etc. that tell a story or carry a vibe across a substantial body of work. You can spot these people a mile away and they tend to have long, varied and diverse careers in art.

INTERVIEWER

The structure of your poems is often experimental, while the content blurs vibrant, intricate language with both pop culture references and classical analogy. How do you see the balance or relationship between modern and classical? Are we living in a world of post-post modernism? Or have we simply run out of the terms to adequately express and describe our contemporary cultural trends and styles?

ARMSTRONG

We’re living in an age of pastiche. This is the first time that our entire existence as human beings has become self-referential. It feels like we’re finally letting go of the concept of ‘time’ – the whole thing has just become delineated. Courtesy of technology, the recent past may as well be right now. The distant past is as accessible as what I did last week. People are always creating new art, but the leading trend seems to be recontextualisation. We’re a race of curators, of remixers and remodellers. I think that my poetry and Perennial especially speaks to that. My aim is to make sense of the chaos, somehow.

INTERVIEWER

When writing poetry, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully fledged poem?

ARMSTRONG

Nearly always, a line or phrase will just drop into my mind. If I choose to pursue it, I can feel the tangents pulling off from the original seed and urging me to get to a computer or pick up a pen. From there, I write quickly to capture as much as possible and edit as I go. I tend not to move on until I’m happy with a line although if I end up at a dead end, I’ll consider some radical changes to the structure to jump-start the process. I favour using a computer because I can get a better ‘feel’ for the visual element of the poem.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when a poem is ‘finished’?

ARMSTRONG

This one is down to intuition. Mostly it’ll be when it feels right, visually. I really champion the visual aspect of the poem on the page – it really steers my decision making throughout the entire writing process. Certain ideas just need to ‘look’ a certain way. Some need to slink down, some appear to me as very horizontal and aggressive, others flutter like a burst bag of feathers. I’m not entirely sure why I feel the need to act on these but I do and it’s a big part of why I love writing poetry. I suppose I’d compare it to how a chef arranges a plate. Certain choices are dictated by things other than logic. Why does the onion need to sit just so? It just does.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published your debut collection, Perennial. Can you tell us a little about the work, and the experience of putting it together? How did you first conceive of the idea, and how did it evolve?

ARMSTRONG

Perennial has been in the works for a very long time now. I started writing poems for it in around 2012 on a coach to visit my uncle in Scotland. It was never intended to be my first collection – it is actually a spin-off to a bigger, larger story – but it just so happened that I finished it first. The collection is a diary of sorts written by an unnamed character who finds himself lost on a strange island. In a narrative sense it functions as a backstory for the character, but it’s a real book within this fictional world, too. Characters from my other poems have read Perennial. The interesting part for me is that due to a complete lack of contextual information, a first-time reader is going to be pretty baffled by it. I wanted to create this underlying sense that its part of something bigger but never really state that outright. The next book will unlock a lot of the secrets in this one.

INTERVIEWER

We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery. What role do you see poetry playing in an age of ‘fake news’ and social media trolling?

ARMSTRONG

The reliability and ‘usefulness’ of poetry is always going to be a grey area. I frequently misuse and manipulate language for different purposes. The difference, I suppose, is that I don’t have an agenda. I’m not trying to make you think or feel a certain way, politically or socially speaking. I think modern poetry will continue as it has done for a while – to inspire the few and confuse the many.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre, poetry has been used as a tool to provide a voice for the powerless and inspire movements and action against the powerful. What are your thoughts on the idea of ‘poetry as protest’?

ARMSTRONG

I think poetry can be used as a tool for those purposes – It’s probably one of the better mediums for it. Of course, it depends entirely on the person writing it, their motivations and the reader’s own interpretation. Performance poetry isn’t really my thing but it’s undeniably effective at bringing together communities and giving people a voice.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a poet?

ARMSTRONG

Not as a poet so much as a person writing poetry. We’re all personally responsible for the impact we make on the world.  I write primarily for myself and to do justice to the story I’m telling with each collection I put out. My main responsibility is to let the poems go wherever they want to. In spite of this, I do try and promote the things I think are important through my work, too.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for authors and poets, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

ARMSTRONG

I’d say just do it and keep doing it and keep finding ways to continue to do it. I find it easiest to keep my passions and sources of income separate, but mutually beneficial. I do a lot of writing for my day job, and this keeps me sharp for my poetry.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your poetry? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

ARMSTRONG

As I mentioned earlier, Perennial, is getting a companion collection which should be finished towards the end of Summer. I’m really proud of what I have so far for it; it’s a lot more playful and experimental than Perennial was. Euripides is the biggest influence on it as a whole. I have an incredible artist working with me on the cover design and some internal illustrations too. We’re currently just working on some initial ideas but I can’t wait to pull everything together. 

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite poem?

ARMSTRONG

It would have to be The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot.

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

ARMSTRONG

Mood dependant! I don’t really read to relax so probably the movie more often than not.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARMSTRONG

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

David Morley. I’m biased because he was my tutor, but in my mind, David stands up against the great pastoral poets of the past. Calling him underrated might be selling him short, but he should definitely be even more known than he is.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

Because of how widely he’s taught, probably Shakespeare. Not all of his work has aged gracefully and I never had him down as a particularly great poet.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

ARMSTRONG

This is a really tough question, given that so many poets are unknown in the greater scheme of things. I’d probably say Jonty Tiplady. I love Zam Bonk Dip, his debut collection. I’m not aware of what he’s done since, but this has inspired me to revisit him! Outside of the poetry world, I recommend that people check out the ambient musician Tim Hecker. His sonic landscapes are just so expressive.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARMSTRONG

I’m really good at recalling the specific release years of records. I can also recite Pi up to 50 digits after me and a friend decided to see who could learn it to more decimal places. I’m not even sure why I can still remember it – that was fifteen years ago.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARMSTRONG

“Thank you”

“Thank you?”

“Thank you.”

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring poets?

ARMSTRONG

Don’t be afraid to write bad poetry, just write something. It can take years to finish a poem. It can take one minute to finish a different poem. Avoid saying things that have already been said because you think you should say them. Try to write without using any similes. Put effort into your book cover. Remember to title your documents. Performing live doesn’t have to be the goal if you don’t want it to be. Revel in your rejection letters. Aim high.

 

 

Creatives in profile – interview with Laura Potts

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Follow Laura Potts on Twitter @thelauratheory_ 

Laura Potts is twenty-two years old and lives in West Yorkshire. Twice-recipient of The Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has been published by Agenda, Aesthetica and The Poetry Business. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, she was nominated for The Pushcart Prize and became one of the BBC’s New Voices last year. Laura’s first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas, and she received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018.

In the following interview, we talk with Laura about creativity and inspiration, writing style and poetry, West Yorkshire, Donald Trump, Joan Crawford and hats.

INTERVIEWER

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

POTTS

Laura, 22. Writes much; reads more. Lives in a city that has been largely lost ever since last century coughed and dropped a war (or two). Born in Yorkshire. Bred on books which always took me further. Fond of rain and winter, the solitary nights and the comfort of the dark. Alone but never lonely and content to be that way. Poet and writer of radio plays. Terminal wearer of hats.

INTERVIEWER

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

POTTS

I have always looked at living like this: life is one great passion, too vast to reduce to the four short lines I just wrote above. My life is many loves. I have never set out to chase just one of them. That would be to exist and not to live. The darkest days and the longest nights; the quiet of a sleeping house; the kindness of another; the seasons, always leaving; anger and its blackness; fire and its warmth; the world unfurling in the hands of ministers and mobs, and all before me. These are just a few of my loves and poetry is their legacy. It has never been art for art’s sake; never poetry for poetry. It is always in the service of my own private chaos that a poem, as the very best medium, comes to be.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

POTTS

Assuming we’re talking poetry, then quite a few haunt me. There’s Dylan Thomas, whose music is truer to ancient verse than winds are to winter; Leonard Cohen, with all the darkness of his heart; John Foggin for landscapes amorphous and Saxon; Clare Pollard for the humour of youth; Peter Riley for Hushings; Ian Parks for desire; Jade Cuttle for what she gives us back; the grace of Phoebe Stuckes; and Sasha Dugdale to the last, whose Joy has stayed with me.

And if we’re not talking poetry, then Joan Crawford. I like her class and taste in hats.

INTERVIEWER

As a Yorkshire-born poet, do you feel that there’s an element of your place of birth and home town in the poems you write? Or do you seek to separate your personal writing from your personal geography? (Is that even possible?)

POTTS

It was Matthew Arnold back in the nineteenth century who famously wrote that the best work comes from the disinterested mind – that is, from those who actively separate themselves from the bright world around them – and I’ve always believed that that ethos should stay firmly in the Victorian era. I disagree with the social ignorance it promotes, nor do I think it is even possible. Such a person would surely be devoid of language and its histories; of human contact and sexual impulse; of feeling altogether? Each poem, whether consciously or not, is the code of my history; each word is the product of past and present. I’ve never thought art can exist in a vacuum. Only a cypher could make that.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry series Sweet the Mourning Dew for BBC Radio 3 focuses on the experiences of those individuals who have lost loved ones to war. What drew you to this topic?

POTTS

My grandfather, mainly. He was an old war veteran and fiercely proud of the fact. He mimed the memory of war each day in a rigid routine; in a noble walk; even in his Brylcreem slicks and the same old comb from 1940 before the morning mirror. Most of all, he wanted to write his memoirs before the cancer came. In that alone he knew defeat. Sweet The Mourning Dew was my testament to a man who was proud of himself, and who wanted the lost to live on from the page past his own small place in time. It was never a passive claim on the tales that others have to tell. It was simply fulfilling a promise.

INTERVIEWER

How do you view the connection between poetry as performance and poetry as a solitary, personal act of reading poems upon a page?

POTTS

I have always believed that a poem can have many lives. Its life on the page is different to its life on the stage, but both are integral to its existence. It is true to the ancient roots of verse that it should be read and shared aloud; that its metre and music should be known to the ear as well as the eye. I am, however, distrustful of poetry as performativity: is emotion so scripted, so fabricated, so brief? And I am nervous of those who shout too loudly: in the most literal sense, in the beginning is the word and no end of spitting or swearing on stage will ever beat that. That is just a sad failure of the imagination.

INTERVIEWER

As a young ‘Gen Z’ poet who has come of age during years marked by the Iraq war; the global financial crisis and recently years of Brexit and Donald Trump, what is your take on the world around you? How can you use poetry to connect with the world as is?

POTTS

Quite frankly, I think the world is creeping dangerously close to repeating those centuries of war and hatred it said it would leave behind. It makes a mockery of those who died for the sake of democracy; for gender and racial equality; for decency; for rights. It laughs in the face of all those who tried and believed in peace. And all for a headline in the New York Times come morning or, better, a few more followers online. I’ve always thought poets are the quiet scribes of history. Like confessional voices to the past, they can speak with a passion which the history page never will.

INTERVIEWER

What has your personal experience been of trying to break onto the ‘poetry scene’?

POTTS

Well, I never tried to ‘break onto’ it as such. I read and wrote and wrote and read, and found the joy in that alone. I never had a formal plan to stand on stage and tell the world that I, self-titled, am ‘a poet’. It was never as scripted as that. But talent alone will always out, or that is what I’m content to think. And it is mainly due to the kindness of friends – of fellow writers, fellow thinkers – who listened and spoke well of me that others hear my voice today.

INTERVIEWER

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

POTTS

Most of all, I’d say that time should be forgotten. Little will come from a hurried mind, and what does is often stillborn. It’s a gift to hold a finished verse but only when it’s right: more joy comes from a well-worked line than a whole verse with no life. Or that’s my belief at least. I can easily spend a week or more just looking at one line. It’s really a very kind process for the mind to let time alone be the catalyst: the thoughts may be intense, yes; but I give them all the open space to grow and romp and play for months, if they need it. It’s a crucial part of my writing style to let the words live with me for hours, or days, or even weeks. If they haven’t settled in by then, I know they’re not to be.

INTERVIEWER

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

POTTS

Yes. Excepting the times when I write for commission and must fulfil criteria, I am the audience I write for. The joy has always been in seeing myself reflected back from the page, and never for the approval of anyone else. If there is a time when that should change, I will put down my pen for good.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

POTTS

An expressive quality by which the mind can translate imagination into reality.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘poet’ mean to you?

POTTS

That’s a much-contended one! I’ve always tried to reserve that title for a rather select group: that is, for those to whom writing is the defining constant of their lives. Perhaps it is their living; perhaps they’ve been well-published; perhaps they did a whole lot more than stand behind a microphone that one time in the pub. Otherwise, I’ll just go chop myself some wood and call myself a craftsman. No, that will never be enough. I think of it like this alone: if you want to align yourself with those who could, with confidence, call themselves ‘the poets’ in the epic annals of Literature, you have to do much more than that. You must be worthy of the name before you make the claim.

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?

POTTS

I have always believed there is something intrinsically restless to poetry: in its formlessness, its shapelessness and its lack of formal laws, there is a freedom unfound in prose. Unlike most other areas of our lives, rules do not exist. And so the union between poetry and politics is a natural one in which the chaos of the latter can find its freedom. And, of course, it always helps that rhyme makes particularly memorable music.

INTERVIEWER

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

POTTS

Really, I’m happy enough just to write when I wish and read to widen my mind. But the next natural step is the first collection for which I have a manuscript; for which the time must be right and I must be ready. Other than that, I’m in the early stage of a full-length play for BBC Radio 4 and I’d like to write for the stage someday. But the plan is to be how I’ve always been and just write for the love alone. So we’ll see. When not writing I am reading, and that will be enough.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 tips for writers?

POTTS

  • Always have an accessible medium. Notebook, diary, tablet, phone. The back of your hand will do. Just make sure your mind never meets a barricade.
  • The best writers are the best readers. You’ll find your voice by listening to others and gauging your own place in the annals of literature.
  • Read your work aloud. At its ancient roots, poetry was an oral art form often set to music. By reading aloud you’ll remember its heritage and notice its flaws. A poem has a different life on the page to its life in the mouth, and it’s easy to know when a writer does not read aloud: their rhythm could be markedly better.
  • Be kind to yourself. Writer’s block is a terrible friend but one we must endure. Take your time. Sometimes the mind works best when at rest.
  • The only regrets you’ll have are for the times you didn’t try. So why not send that submission today?

Creatives in profile: interview with Justin Sullivan

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Justin Sullivan

Justin Sullivan is a singer and songwriter; the founding member and lead singer of New Model Army. Formed in 1980 to play two gigs, 14 studio and four live albums later they are still going strong, releasing Winter in 2016, and currently touring South America. He also has two solo albums, and is part of Red Sky Coven, in which he performs with Joolz Denby and Rev. Hammer.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself – your background and your lifestyle.

SULLIVAN

I never tell too much about myself. It’s all out there if people really want to know…

INTERVIEWER

Music or writing as a first love – which came first, and how do they coexist in your output?

SULLIVAN

Music always came first. Like many people growing up, music made sense of the world and the mysteries of life and experience when nothing else did. I found that I had an ability to shape ideas and words later. Their coexistence is a tricky issue for me – how much precision and meaning to sacrifice for the sake of the song as a whole is a constant question. I love the ‘ideas stage’ of song-writing; that’s the easy bit – but the actual construction of songs is just a question of ‘putting the hours in’.

INTERVIEWER

Who and/or what inspires you?

SULLIVAN

Anything, everything. Things I see, read, stories that other people tell me. I try not to write too much about my own life and experiences; many songs begin with ‘I’ but really they are other people’s stories.

INTERVIEWER

You have often told of your love of being “by, in, or on the water”, and much of your work details this love. Where does this love stem from, and how does it inform your writing?

SULLIVAN

There is a physical sensation of communion when swimming in the sea or rivers because the water is moving around you, with you, almost like another sentient being. I also think that constant change is the principle of life but while forests and mountains and seasons are changing they’re not really happening in our time scale. The movement of waves and tides is much more something we can relate to.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a writing practice/system/habit?

SULLIVAN

The way we write songs is to have two cupboards. One is marked musical ideas – like drumbeats, chord sequences, bits of melody, bass-lines, jam sessions, anything collected from all members of the band. The other is marked lyrical ideas and at all time I have notebooks with me in which I write – sometimes just a line or idea, sometimes a whole story or rambling thought. When both cupboards are full I sit down and start to put things together; it’s important to wait until both cupboards are full and not be stuck in a studio scratching heads looking for inspiration. If you’ve got enough in storage the process becomes pretty easy  – again just a question of ‘putting the hours in’.

INTERVIEWER

Your writing work is sometimes cited as poetry – is there a significant difference between the poetry and lyrics in your mind, and if so, what is or are the differences?

SULLIVAN

I think there is a difference. Poetry (or at least good poetry) can have a certain musicality but it doesn’t have to be sung. The rise and fall of words can be altered by the person reading. In song-writing the melodic rises and falls are fixed and have to be right.

INTERVIEWER

Your lyrics are syntactically coherent throughout each song, and many convey full and detailed stories and sentiment. Many musicians write music first, fitting the vocal line, and thus the lyric, to the melody. What is your practice, and how does it affect the writing of lyrics, and the evolution of a song?

SULLIVAN

Mostly (though not always) I write in a recognisable form of structured verses, choruses, breaks etc into which I have to fit lyrical ideas as best I can, which takes more work and involves more hard choices.

INTERVIEWER

You and Robert Heaton worked closely with writer Joolz Denby, putting music to her poetry for several of her albums. In terms of composing music for lyrics/poetry, what do you think is most important to keep in mind?

SULLIVAN

I have done a few albums with Joolz – as have other musicians. These are particularly attractive projects because her poetry usually has a strong narrative, which allows music to be built around it – almost like a film soundtrack. On top of this she has an outstandingly musical reading voice (she once worked with a very famous Canadian jazz pianist who said it was like working with a jazz singer). We begin with the poem of course but can spend so long on the music that it’s important not to forget that in the end it’s still all about the poem…

INTERVIEWER

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

SULLIVAN

No, never.

INTERVIEWER

Is language itself a love for you, or just a tool? What are your thoughts on fluidity and development of language in the age of “text speak” and emojis?

SULLIVAN

Yes, language is a fascination and I am in total admiration of certain poets and authors, but as I said at the beginning, it does come secondary to the music for me. I like the way language changes. I love text messages for their brevity and precision. I’m not especially quick-witted in conversation. So the chance to think for a minute before replying is welcome. I don’t hate emojis as some people often claim to. In wider social media (I don’t do Facebook but of course I’ve seen it often), they are essential. In normal every day human conversation we read each other’s faces as well as listen to words which is incredibly important to gauge what people really mean, whether they’re joking or not, whether they’re hurt or upset. Without this communication the possibilities for misunderstandings and the escalation of bad feeling is multiplied many times over; hence the development of emojis.

INTERVIEWER

How would you say your writing has changed through your career, and what have been the major influences on its development?

SULLIVAN

When I started, I felt a need to state positions, emotions. After the first few years, I’d done that and didn’t feel the need to repeat them. Instead it became interesting to tell stories, even those of people whom I don’t naturally agree with or find sympathetic. It goes without saying that Joolz has been the most major influence on my development as a writer but of course there have been many others too. As lyricists I really admire Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, lots of country and hip-hop artists all for their precision and poetry. Oh and many, many others.

INTERVIEWER

In Song To The Men Of England, you “co-write” with Percy Bysshe Shelly, and the social climate in the West is hugely polarised, monochromatic and angry right now – what are your thoughts on poetry and music as protest and documentation?

SULLIVAN

Well I wouldn’t say we co-wrote it. It was for a straightforward political project – I can’t remember whose idea it was to use the Shelley poem, probably Joolz’s, and we created some music that fit with her reading. Political poetry and music rarely change people’s minds but what they can do is give focus and clarity to a half-thought and, most importantly, make people aware that they’re not alone in how they feel about the World. This is incredibly important. We’ve really felt a new electrical charge at our concerts in the last 5 years or so – as if people NEED this music more than ever and the sense of community that it creates.

INTERVIEWER

When we last met, you were telling me of how you’d found a proper original punk rock recording studio in Bradford, that you were looking forward to going to. Has that bourn fruit, and if so, what and when should we expect?

SULLIVAN

A long time ago now. ‘Winter’ was made there and so will at least part of whatever we do next.

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Will Eaves

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Will Eaves is a novelist, poet and teacher. He was Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011 before moving to the University of Warwick, where he is an Associate Professor in the Writing Programme. His novel-in-voices The Absent Therapist was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2014. The Inevitable Gift Shop, a collection of poetry and prose, was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry in 2016 and commended by the Poetry Book Society. The first chapter of his most recent novel, Murmur, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2017.

In other words, Will Eaves is an okay dude. His writing has been described by critics as “scrupulous, humane, sad and strange”, carrying “an exciting sense of newness” that feels crucial at a time when mainstream publishing seems increasingly interested only in publishing copies of risk-free, commercially successful novels that are copies of other commercially successful novels.

In conversation, Eaves speaks the way he writes—with point, clarity and wit. Indeed, the reverse is also true: he writes in a way that feels like conversation.

INTERVIEWER

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

EAVES

I live in Brixton, at the top of Brixton Hill. I’ve been in the area now for nearly thirty years, though I come from the West Country (Bath) originally. I went to a comprehensive school: I think it’s the best kind of education there is. Far from perfect, but fair. It is absurd to talk about freedom of choice, in education or health, if choice is something only the rich can afford. Of course, environment has a lot to do with contentment at a young age, and the setting was beautiful. I liked Cross Country rather than contact sports – I was small and thin – and the weekly runs that the bigger kids hated (because of all the hills) took me through a kind of paradise of beech forest and meadows. While the PE teachers repaired to the staff room for a well-deserved fag break after all that fiddling about with whistles, we ran through Rainbow Wood at the top of Ralph Allen Drive and then down through the grounds of Prior Park towards Mike Casford’s house, where we’d stop for coffee and biscuits. I can’t run any more, which is a shame, but I can remember – well, I conjure up – the trees and thistles on those runs, and the view, and the freedom. The teachers smoked, we had coffee. Fair enough. There was some bullying at school, but nothing too bad. I was conscious of being small. I still think someone is going to push me into the road. On the other hand, I could be sharp, and I learnt to answer back. I don’t mind being taken to task, or disagreed with, or even disliked. I mind being exploited by the dull and fortunate.

INTERVIEWER

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

EAVES

It is a habit, more than anything else. I think of it as the sum of things that leads to a poem or a story or a book. I’ve always liked trees, and seeing seeds I’ve planted come up in the spring. Music, too: I played the piano and organ as a teenager; I liked the sociability and solitude of both those instruments; I can sing a bit. I enjoy acting. If I could afford it, I’d have a house with a music room. I was a latecomer to sex, and then had a great deal of it for twenty-five years! I’ve loved being gay. Even the bad experiences have been good, because you meet such different people. I’ve been properly in love twice. The last time was eight years ago and completely changed me.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

EAVES

My aunt. She is ninety. She left the UK in 1947, at the age of nineteen, and went to New York, where she taught at the Central School and met her husband, Bob Bollard, who was a Broadway composer and director. She got to know Sydney Pollack and Harry Belafonte and became involved in Democratic politics for a while. Bob died of cancer in his thirties and Scilla was completely stuck, no money, three kids. But she got a government grant to go to medical school and became a doctor. An ear specialist. I have never heard her complain about anything. I dread losing her. She is ten times the person I will ever be, but I try to follow her example. She liked Murmur, and if it passed muster with her, well, that’s good enough for me.

Writers – the Exeter Book, Shakespeare’s late plays and sonnets, Montaigne, Austen, Coleridge, George Eliot, Flaubert, Christina Rossetti, Auden, William Golding, Penelope Fitzgerald, whoever I happen to be reading (Patricia Beer), Elmore Leonard, Thom Gunn. Also, many comedians and comic writers – Victoria Wood, Lily Tomlin, Joe Keenan, Billy Wilder, Paul Rudnick. Musicians and composers – Bach, Poulenc, Chopin, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin.

And my Dad, John. He is a painter. He has felt it necessary to keep going. His approach is very much “do what you can” in life, which is sensible (and kinder than “do your best”).

I also admire my friends for a variety of reasons.

INTERVIEWER

Your books The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop have both been praised for their fragmentary form. Could you tell us a little about why you chose to structure your work in this way?

EAVES

I like the way speech patterns and conversations derail themselves. Good dialogue, like most things in life, is a combination of determined response and wild digression or misprision. I like the moments in arguments when people suddenly hear themselves yelling, or realise they’ve lost ground, and try to shut things down by changing the subject or feigning emotion. Or play dumb, or defend people who don’t need defending and infuriate everyone else. Anger is often dangerous in life, but it’s also the essence of comedy. I was so frustrated with my life, just before I started The Absent Therapist, and felt I’d run aground. Nothing more to say. Which was a kind of turning-point, because when you have nothing to say you start listening, and The Absent Therapist is really a short book about listening – to the people who interrupt each other, the people who sit quietly and take mental notes. The little monologues are both external and internal, and often seem to be about recreating a moment or justifying a position in retrospect.

Memory is dynamic. It isn’t the retrieval of discrete bits of information, but a sort of paradoxical jigsaw puzzle in which the remembered image changes with the piecing-together. I think that’s what I was trying to get at in The Inevitable Gift Shop, which was an attempt at an honest and therefore slightly discontinuous memoir. I was also in terrific pain at the time, and pain has a way of completely fracturing the mind. You don’t lose your mind. In some obvious ways, the qualia of mental experience are massively heightened. But the intensity of pain can be distracting.

INTERVIEWER

While the idea of collage as an artistic form is not new in the visual arts, do you think it is increasingly a form that is influencing writing – or the literary industry?

EAVES

There does seem to be a fashion for it, yes. But I wonder if the difference between collage and continuous narrative isn’t overstated. For example, a lot of ancient text is fragmentary – all that’s left after the ruin of the ages – and the suggestive reconstitution of those fragments (the psalms, the surviving tragic drama, the Exeter Book etc.) has helped build the Western canon in its long and short forms.

All writing is collage, or perhaps tapestry, in the sense that it is a composition of elements. The distinguishing property is the ordering of those elements – whether the collage serves one story, or image, or many; and often the “one story”, on closer inspection, is the many. Proust is long but kaleidoscopic, motes in one immense shaft of sunlight. I think that a lot of the fuss about experimentalism is slightly embarrassing. If you step back from the collage, you rediscover a sense of its cohesiveness; the edges become joined. A political metaphor.

INTERVIEWER

We know that life does not run in linear patterns – and rather comes in flashes; moments of clarity and inspiration. As Daniel Dennett notes in his work, ‘Consciousness explained’; “we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, [yet] they’re actually chaotic. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances.” Do you think collage – or a fragmentary plot structure – is a more natural way of organising a piece of writing than traditional models, such as the plot-driven novel?

EAVES

There are lots of different questions, here. I think we need first to clear up something about linearity – to distinguish between the nature of time, as it affects the objective world (and the body), and the nature of mental reality. It’s an exaggeration to say that “life does not run in linear patterns”, because of course it does have a marked linearity for humans: we are born, we live, and then we die. That is the plot of life. But that is only time as we conceive of it historically; on closer inspection, time as we really apprehend it mentally is rather different: a thing that is experienced both as a linear process (we see its ageing, history-producing effect) and as something that can be reconfigured in (see above) the dynamic of memory. The odd thing is that this mental dynamism – a property of the consciousness that Dan Dennett and others consider to be an effect of ordinary material processes – turns out to be quite a good description of the way time operates at the level of the quantum equation, where physical law does not discriminate between the past and the future. (The direction of time’s arrow is given, it is thought, by the state of extreme orderliness at the beginning of the universe; but, statistically speaking, “chaos” is much more likely.)

What this combination of characteristics suggests to me is that consciousness, like time, is both highly personal and fundamental: the subjective component, the feeling that we are experiencing something unique to us, is not an illusion, or “just” an ideation, but an aspect of reality – of relativistic spacetime, in fact. Dennett is a brilliant man, but “we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent” seems to me to be wide of the mark. I have never met anyone who thinks of her mind in this way. The homunculus language of psychology – the “boss in the brain” – is a cartoon. Unless we are on powerful drugs, we normally conceive of minds as being complex and irreducible, as they may well be. My own feeling is that consciousness arises from material processes but cannot be reduced to them (the No Way Back Paradox). The fact that it cannot be reduced without losing its USP – the personal vantage-point – tells us something about our inadequate grasp of those ordinary material processes and their relationship to time.

I don’t see how a fragmentary narrative could be “more natural” than a unitary one because both are artistic constructions. But is fragmentation more realistic? Possibly.

INTERVIEWER

Your latest book, Murmur, puts us inside the mind – inside the dreams, even – of Alan Turing during his chemical castration. Simply, what processes do you go through to so vividly depict the most intimate moments of a genius’s mind at a time of extreme pain?

EAVES

I’m glad you feel that the experiment worked: thank you. It’s hard to say what one does. Writing a book – and perhaps especially a book about a dreadful transfiguration – is a little like having a protracted fit. Once it’s over, there’s no way to retrieve the feverish actuality of the creative moment. Thank God. I just remember not enjoying it very much, and feeling exiled from myself – a dissociative condition I couldn’t very well moan about because I’d chosen it. It’s a short book, but it took years to write, mostly because it coincided with a period of restricted movement, and of course I wonder about the relationship of that period to the anxieties inherent in the subject-matter. I also had to continue working as a teacher to pay the mortgage and the bills.

I was very nervous about tackling Turing. I’m not a mathematician so I had to work hard to understand the meta-mathematics of Godelian incompleteness, the Entscheidungsproblem, etc, and I hope I haven’t made too many errors. For fictional purposes, he had to be his own avatar: I couldn’t allow myself to put words into the mouth of a genius. That would have been wrong. But I think my overall wager is sound. Murmur tries to find a dramatic paraphrase for Turing’s physical, mental and political predicament. It asks: how does one fit the personal experience of trauma into a material conception of the world? The story’s scientist, Alec Pyror, discovers that the outward responses one gives to the world are not necessarily related to the inner life, which may be crying out, in great distress. At the same time, the novel resists that pain. It’s the story of a man trying to overcome desolation and self-pity by objectifying the trauma.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

EAVES

Yes. Ethics is the social dimension of morality. Lots of books have been written about the social role of the artist, and I don’t wish to misrepresent the complexity of that commentary, because there are so many different ways of making an artistic contribution to society. But, as I see it, my ethical responsibility is not to wear uniform. Writing springs from a strange combination of personal aesthetic ambition, vanity, and guarded conviction. It is much more provisional than the artefactual solidity of a book might suggest: this book is what I have to say this time, and it will be a different performance next time. Ethics, for a writer, are unavoidable because publication is the social dimension of private inquiry. The process is, and should be, discomfiting. One way of producing bad writing, bad philosophy and sclerotic politics is to attempt to get art, argument and policy to represent a standard of conduct that already exists – an ideology, I guess. Writers should be wary of all that. If you find yourself expressly on the side of a political party, or a movement, fine, but be prepared to find yourself in disagreement with it. Soon. The most important thing about a conviction is the moment when circumstances threaten its validity.

INTERVIEWER

What role do writers and artists have in shaping culture – or influencing social conversations?

EAVES

This is an enormous question. There is one’s ambition to do something, and there is the true state of play. There is the role one’s ego perceives a writer to have – the role one desires, or fears, perhaps – and there is one’s actual insignificance. How you think you come over, how you are. What you think you can do, what gets done. If one thinks of art and writing as one might think of anything else in life, then the answer must be that one shapes and influences one’s surroundings in a piecemeal fashion, sometimes by design but mostly by accident, and of course the shaping and influencing are reciprocal. Often, it’s the work and the actions that take place on one’s blind side that count for most: the contributions to a local paper, the email sent at just the right time, the note to a councillor. Nothing lasts, and that’s fine. We rediscover art and culture and form and justice. Also, it’s a mistake to confuse the public voice with the social voice. Private correspondence is social, too. The most important things I have written have been letters to people who, for one reason or another, needed some acknowledgment.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you feel, is the relationship between fiction and non-fiction; prose and poetry?

EAVES

A fruitful misalliance. W. Somerset Maugham (in his postscript to The Casuarina Tree): “A work of fiction, and perhaps I should not go too far if I spoke more generally and said, a work of art, is an arrangement which the author makes of the facts of his experience with the idiosyncracies of his own personality.”

INTERVIEWER

A running theme in some of your books is the subject of Artificial Intelligence. In a world increasingly full of modern technology, and in which we now have computer programmes writing prose and poetry (including re-writing Harry Potter), what role do human beings have to play when surrounding by all this early-form AI? Are you as sceptical about AI as, say, the late Stephen Hawking?

EAVES

I’m not sure Hawking was sceptical about it. He was alarmed.

There are two issues. One is the sci-fi existential anxiety about conscious machines, which is obviously predicated on an understanding of what sort of thing consciousness itself might turn out to be. We don’t know. We’re not there, yet, and conscious robotics are a way off, because what we have so far is responsive machinery behaving in ways to which we may, if we choose, assign the properties of intelligence. But assigning such properties to a piece of technology is not the same thing as claiming intentionality for the machine itself – that is, the capacity to refer to things outside itself, to understand the meaning of the rules it follows, etc. Metaphorical language isn’t helping us much, because we tend to forget that “messages”, for example, are conscious-user-dependent concepts. A computer doesn’t send messages; you read them.

Conscious machinery will happen. But machinery doesn’t need to be conscious for it to play a significant, symbiotic and potentially destructive role in social and economic development. Non-conscious tech – automation – has been around a long time and is becoming more sophisticated; the efficiencies/growth model of capitalism means that it will absorb most remaining manufacturing labour in the coming decades. What then?

The vulnerability of labour in a national context is the second problem. Our anxieties about borders and migration are displaced anxieties about borderless technology and the silent transfer of executive power from the defined state (a country with a border and jurisdictional limits) to the transnational corporation. Cyber warfare is a demonstration of the fact that states are losing their integrity: the more powerful countries use the “freeflow” of cyberspace to advance their political agenda (as Emily Taylor has argued in Cyber Policy Journal); but this goes hand-in-hand with corporatism, it turns out, because the media platforms manipulated by these countries, and flooded with bots and micro-targeting, are mega-companies with enormous worker populations across the globe and the ability to pick and choose their tax liabilities.

I’m not sure how we wrest back control. Corporates create the tech, the tech crosses or cancels the border, the states survive in name only, the corporates stay in charge.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

EAVES

Consequential wonder.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a typical ‘writing process’?

EAVES

No. I used to say “start, then keep going”, but I don’t know what “start” means any more. I try to nurture a habit of reading and annotation, hoping that the trail of scrawl will lead to an interesting, half-original thought, and so to a premise, and then some figures in a doorway . . .

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

EAVES

Not much. Journalism is a profession – and an important one. Writing is one of its tools. Writers are presumably people who write. It’s too vague as a term to be of much use, though people do like to call themselves writers, don’t they? It’s a conversation stopper, that’s for sure.

INTERVIEWER

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

EAVES

I’m sorry to say that I can’t, because there aren’t any.

INTERVIEWER

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

EAVES

Read slowly and carefully. Write letters. Eat properly. Walk. Don’t be afraid to stop: other people matter more in the end, and it’s not a race. Learn to spell and punctuate. Look up.

 

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Anna Saunders

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Are there any sights more cheering than crowds of readers tramping across a field carrying books, or sitting under canopies discussing the minutiae of a single line of poetry, or a page of fiction? Increasingly, we live in such a fast-paced world that leaves precious little room for these acts of literary activity (for ‘activity’, may we read instead, ‘rebellion’?). Instead of thinking about Tennyson, or Eliot or Woolf or Plath, we must spend our days flicking through the endless annals of social media; while corporations pipe endless Muzak into our ears and other orifices, and we slave away for 80 hours a week for stagnating wages, just so we can afford the shiny and colourful things advertising billboards and signs on every public surface insist we must purchase immediately.

In such a world, events that enable literary conversations and communion to flourish are, therefore, to be cherished. It is an honour, therefore, to bring you the following interview with Anna Saunders – founder of the Cheltenham Poetry Festival.

Anna is the author of Communion, (Wild Conversations Press), Struck, (Pindrop Press) Kissing the She Bear, (Wild Conversations Press), Burne Jones and the Fox ( Indigo Dreams) and the Ghosting for Beginners ( Indigo Dreams, Spring 2018 ) described as ‘ a beautifully evocative read’ by Fiona Sampson.

She  has had poems published in journals and anthologies, which include Ambit, The North, New Walk Magazine, Amaryllis, Iota, Caduceus, Envoi, The Wenlock Anthology, Eyeflash,  and The Museum of Light.

Described as ‘a poet who surely can do anything’ by The North, ‘a modern myth maker’ by Paul Stephenson and as  ‘a poet of quite remarkable gifts’ by Bernard O’Donoghue, Anna founded the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in 2010 as an all-singing, all-dancing festival – one that fuses poetry and music, film, drama and visual art. Most importantly of all – it helps brings creatives together (which is where they belong, if you ask us).

INTERVIEWER

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

SAUNDERS

I live in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire though originally come from Hoylake – a coastal town not far from Liverpool. I am lucky to be able to go ‘home’ often and enjoy the vibrant cultural life of Liverpool, and walks along the shore, as well as having a home in the heart of the Cotswolds.

I come from a family of journalists and writers – one boss said I had ‘ink in my blood’. Most of my life has revolved around the literary arts; consuming or producing them. I am a poet, author of 5 collections of poetry and the Founding Director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival, I also teach creative writing.

INTERVIEWER

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

SAUNDERS

I love any immersive experience – walking by the sea, watching live music, reading, going to the theatre, spending time with people who inspire me.

Running a poetry festival is a great joy too – it’s exhilarating to have a creative vision and see it come to fruition. I really enjoy ‘poet shopping’ when I am building the programme. It’s always a thrill to bring your literary idols to town. Last year for example I booked Matthew Sweeney, whose work I’ve always greatly admired;I programmed Kathy Towers, Sasha Dugdale, Fiona Sampson and Wayne Holloway Smith, too. It was a thrill to meet them all and I felt a little star struck.

INTERVIEWER

When you write – be it poetry or fiction – how much of the finished manuscript is in your mind when you start out?

SAUNDERS

When I started writing my last two collections, I had some idea of the shape of the books, or at least their driving themes.

Burne Jones and the Fox (Indigo Dreams) was inspired by a love affair between Maria Zambaco and the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne Jones, I tell the story of their intensive and destructive love affair through a series of poems, the collection also explores what I see as the duality within us – between the feral and the civilized, the artist and the fox.  Ghosting for Beginners also has a consistent theme – i.e. what ‘haunts’ us for good or bad.  I guess both these books are like concept albums!

INTERVIEWER

Joyce Carol Oates once said that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out “are they as crazy as I am?” Do you have any particularly crazy writing habits?

SAUNDERS

I usually have to write first drafts on rough scrappy paper – ideally without lines! I do a lot of walking around, muttering to myself – is that crazy enough?

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. What voice does Anna Saunders, poet, speak with?

SAUNDERS

I have been told I ‘write like an American’ –perhaps that’s because of my direct, ostensibly conversational voice. Rory Waterman said my work was ‘superbly imagistic’ which was a huge compliment – I aim to empower my work with the use of potent images, and of course I use legend, and classic narratives.Paul Stephenson called me a ‘modern myth maker’.

INTERVIEWER

Does your reading affect what you write?

SAUNDERS

Yes – absolutely. I read a lot of poetry and while I am writing I keep dipping into books. It’s impossible for me to write well without reading, it’s like needing to hear the music before you start to dance.

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’?

SAUNDERS

I think the poetry scene is thriving.  We’ve seen a huge increase in audiences at Cheltenham Poetry Festival and poetry book buying has surged too. There seem to be some incredibly talented spoken word artists and poets emerging daily and I am completely in awe of the work being published by Nine Arches, Indigo Dreams, Bloodaxe, V Press, Seren and other publishers. It is, however, a really competitive industry – and the route to publication can be a convoluted one! I’d advise aspiring poets to read copious amounts, study craft, write every day and keep their eye on journals and on line publications, keep submitting and build up that CV so they can meet the requirements of the publishing houses.

Though having said all that – it should be all about the creative act really, rather than public success. As Virginia Woolf said ‘writing is the most profound pleasure, being read the superficial!’

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk to us about the ethos behind the Cheltenham Poetry Festival – is it important, do you feel, to bring writers and creatives together?

SAUNDERS

I think the Guardian put it perfectly when they described the Festival as ‘a poetry party with a healthy dose of anarchy’ – we try to have a punk spirit; and be questioning, free thinking and speak out against the system from time to time.

We are serious about poetry, but like to have a good time too.  There is a great buzz when the festival runs – with audiences getting the chance to hang with some of our greatest living writers. Since the festival kicked off in 2011 we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy performances by some stellar names– they include John Cooper Clarke, Fiona Sampson, Owen Sheers, John Hegley, Hollie McNish, Don Patterson, Clare Pollard, Matthew Sweeney, Murray Lachlan Young, Jacob Polley– to name just a few. And yes, it’s incredibly inspiring for creatives to meet the writers they admire.

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 – with reality often seeming more fictitious than fiction and beyond the imagination of mainstream culture. How does poetry revolt against actuality in a reality increasingly ‘false’? And what role can poetry play in protest and activism – specifically protest and revolt against current dictats of ‘reality’?

SAUNDERS

My recent work has been inspired by events on the world stage, politics and the crisis of austerity – but I try use dark humour and some aesthetic beauty to address these subjects.

I have found it increasingly difficult to turn away from some of the horrors we are experiencing due to governmental decisions.

I am working on a new book which uses figures from Greek and Roman myth to explore contemporary issues – in one of the poems Persephone goes on Question Time to interrogate Hades, who has abducted her and taken her into the underworld to starve – a great metaphor for the punitive measures of austerity.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give us your top ten writing tips for writers?

SAUNDERS

  1. Read widely and copiously – not just the poets you admire but the ones you find challenging, even dislike. Study the craft. We can learn so much from the writers we love or even loathe.
  2. Ignore the Inner Critic – give yourself time to free write – set a timer and just let your ink flow for 10, 15 minutes – let your imagination have free reign, don’t stop to correct spelling or punctuation. Write wild.  Your most exciting ideas can emerge this way.
  3. Write regularly. Keep your appointment with the page and the muse will know when to show up.
  4. Keep a journal, or a writers notebook – open your eyes and ears to what is around you. Get in the habit of being a word magpie and steal conversations, quotes, scenes from around you and get them on the page.
  5. Use a mixture of Latinate and Anglo Saxon language. Too much of the first and your work may seem overwritten and too much of the latter, and it may not sing.
  6. Edit. As Hemingway said ‘first drafts are shit’. Revise, redraft again and again.
  7. Avoid clichés and tired expressions. Avoid abstract nouns and excessive use of adjectives.
  8. Listen to feedback and accept intelligent critiques of your work if they help your hone your craft.  Embrace any opportunities to learn ( I studied for a Masters in Creative Writing).
  9. Take risks, believe in your vision, keep going.
  10.  Ignore all advice. Except this advice.

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Wundor Editions

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Matthew Smith, founder of independent publishing house, Wunder Editions.

It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the industry has been forced to seek new and innovative ways to survive. 

One fantastic – and relatively new – player within the sector is Wundor Editions, a London-based publishing house committed to producing innovative and challenging literature and images, while working with new and established writers and photographers.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview with the founder of Wundor Editions, the author, photographer and designer Matthew Smith.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

SMITH

I’m a writer of fiction and poetry, a photographer and a designer. I read English Literature at Oxford, but part of me had wanted to go to art school in London. Both the literary and the visual have always been key for me. In my own creativity and in the work of the artists I am inspired by I like to be surprised by the work of the imagination. A ‘wundor’ is an Old English word for something unimaginable, perhaps a miracle, perhaps a monster. This is the stuff of storytelling, so I named my publishing house after it.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SMITH

Nas, Billy Corgan, Pep Guardiola, Marilynne Robinson, Bjork, Warren Buffet. All people with a singular vision who have managed to bring it out of themselves.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Wundor Editions – how was it borne into existence? 

SMITH 

I wanted to make compelling books and present them to readers in new and engaging ways. By fusing together the worlds of striking photography, illustration and design with original, new works of literature, I felt we could make a world of creativity that people would want to be part of.

INTERVIEWER

It’s no easy feat to bring a new independent publishing house into existence – the sector is so dominated by the established ‘big five’. What are some of the main challenges you faced in establishing Wundor Editions?

SMITH

The main challenges are to do with becoming known to readers. First you have to become known to bookshop owners. Before that you have to become known to reviewers, a distributor and a sales team. You have to take the vision out to these people first, and convince a lot of people that your vision will come to fruition with perhaps only one book in print form that you can use to demonstrate this.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, are the biggest opportunities for independent publishers within the publishing sector?

SMITH

There are lots of artistic works out there that are not given the time of day but they could find an audience. There is no shortage of this stuff, that’s a myth. You just have to know what you’re looking for, and be grateful that it’s not what someone else is looking for.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a publishing house or printing press should be for? Why are they important?

SMITH

They give artists a platform and inspire their readers.

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has stated that the problem with the big publishing companies is that they are too risk averse: they are only willing to “publish novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think that independent publishers have a duty to champion independent voices of authors and artists whose books may never be given a chance by the bigger companies in the sector?

SMITH

Great books are great books – big companies publish them, small companies publish them. Independent publishers should be careful not to define themselves by their differences to bigger companies, thereby limiting their own potential unnecessarily. And independent publishers do fall into the same trap Julian Barnes rightly mentions. But hopefully more often than not their independence allows for a more nimble and agile approach to creativity, and the courage to take risks on original works of art. The challenge is to build this ethos into a growing company that continues to take risks as it grows.

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?

SMITH

I’m just looking for exciting new authors and photographers who have unique visions and who have taken the time to develop their technique so they can express their ideas brilliantly. The future will look after itself.

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

The same role they’ve always played. The internet is great for seeking out specific pieces of information and for communication, but after prolonged periods it wears away at your concentration and offers little in the way of sustenance. Traditional presses can make books we can treasure and that have meaning – both in their physical form and as vehicles for stories and poems. There is a power that a book lying on a table has that is magnetic. The internet can’t compete with it.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

SMITH

The ability to imagine something and then to make it accessible to others.

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to authors thinking of submitting their work to Wundor Editions?

SMITH

Go for it! It doesn’t have to be perfect – we will work with writers to develop their stories and their poetry. But you do need to have an original voice.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for Wundor Editions? What should we look out for?

SMITH

We’ll be publishing an Australian literary heavyweight for the first time in the UK later this year, and we’ll be launching our first photobooks too.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

SMITH

Oh no. Wait. That’s it! Hmmm.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

SMITH

  • Trust your own instincts completely but be open to other people’s ideas.
  • The only thing worse than refusing to take advice is taking advice you’re not comfortable with. Take advice from a number of sources and pick and choose what resonates with you. Be your own executive editor.
  • Know that you might have to put your work out there before it’s perfect, and perfect it along the way.
  • There’s no such thing as writer’s block, only fallow periods. If you don’t have any ideas, don’t write anything. Wait for the urge to come back. You’ll save yourself a lot of hours of editing.
  • There’s always time to write a novel if you really want to. Be ingenious in your scheduling.
  • Minimise all engagement with digital stuff if you want to rediscover deep concentration.
  • Don’t buy into the dream of a life where you only have to write. You wouldn’t find it fulfilling because there are other kinds of work which can provide things that writing can’t. And if you can earn money from another source, you’re free to pursue your vision unimpeded by commercial concerns. Ironically, if your work is good, there’s a good chance it will sell.

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!