Q&A: READING, WRITING & ALL THAT JAZZ
Your books are like puzzles. Where do the ideas come from and how do you put them together?
A book is made up of thousands of ideas, some of them only tiny fragments or impressions, which combine to form a whole. Part of being a writer is collecting these disparate flecks of inspiration and then recognising which ones belong together. As with most creative pursuits, it involves a mix of instinct and conscious effort. It is a lot like assembling a puzzle: in the beginning I need three of four pieces to fit together to provide enough of a kernel around which to build the rest of the picture. As a reader, and as a writer, I prefer books with rich, vivid textures and layers of plot and meaning. If my setting, characters, plot, or sense of place don’t feel real enough, I find it very easy to lose faith in the book I’m writing.
It’s also very important to me, if I’m writing a mystery, that my stories are sufficiently complicated to keep readers guessing. The best mysteries are those where everything necessary to solve the problem is hidden in clear sight, so I need to employ a lot of misdirection. I have no patience for games of strategy, like chess, and I’m sure it’s because the part of my brain concerned with problem solving is already fully engaged.
What is your favourite part of the process?
I have two favourite parts, the first being the plotting and planning that takes place before I’ve even typed, ‘Chapter One’. It’s a period of absolute play, of conjuring the story, settings and characters to life in my imagination; there are no wrong answers and everything is possible. My second favourite part comes at the end of the writing process, the structural edit, when I have a completed manuscript to play with and can loosen the threads before getting to work trimming and developing, polishing and strengthening, and then stitching it back together in a tighter form.
How much research do you have to undertake for each novel?
A lot, but it doesn’t feel that way because it’s a part of the process that I really enjoy. I would read the same books, and visit the same museums and galleries and houses regardless, because the topics that I write about fascinate me. The research itself takes different forms depending on where I’m at with the book. In the beginning, when I have only a vague idea of my characters, setting and story, I read as much and as widely as I can, letting the subjects that interest me the most lead me in new directions. As the book progresses, however, the research becomes more specific, and I start narrowing in on the details that I need to bring verisimilitude to scenes depicting events that I haven’t experienced myself: the evacuation process during the Second World War, for instance, or the experiences of returned soldiers after the First World War; details like the sorts of flowers that would be blooming in Kent in May and the types of cigarettes that Percy Blythe would have smoked…
What are your top tips for aspiring writers?
Read frequently and widely. Read consciously and critically. Write daily, and always write what you love. Never be tempted to write for the market. If you’re writing for yourself, you’ll be rewarded even if you’re not published. Don’t be discouraged. (Well, not for long, anyway.) Sometimes you will hate what you’ve written. Sometimes it will seem that everybody else hates what you’ve written. The biggest challenge any writer faces is having work rejected and managing to get back up, dust off, and begin again. Rejection stings, but if you love the process of writing, you will keep going anyway. You won’t have a choice: characters, settings, ideas will keep bothering you until you give in and write them down.
Writing a book is like building a house: it takes time and effort, and you need a firm underlying structure to hold it together so that the pretty trims don’t collapse under close inspection. Whenever I reach a sticking point I take myself and my notebook to a coffee shop (park, library, bar – whatever your taste) where I give myself over to imagining. Somehow that brief separation from my manuscript helps me to see things clearly and refills me with enthusiasm and direction. (Using pen and paper helps, too – there’s something about the sensation of the nib racing across the page, that draws a direct line to my brain.)
Do you have any writing rituals?
I write on a computer, but I always plan with pen and paper. I fill copious notebooks with scribbled story outlines, character ideas, questions to myself and, happily, lots of answers. One of my favourite things to do when I hit a wall with my writing is to take my notebook to a dim and cosy coffee shop. I find a booth in the back corner, disappear into it, and start daydreaming. I scribble anything and everything that comes to mind, and it never fails to send me right back into the world of my story. Despite my best intentions, my desk (and, at this moment, my floor) is a cluttered mess of old manuscript drafts, lidless pens, paper clips, sticky notes, a doodling pad, coffee cups, and ‘to-do’ lists.
Do you have any reading rituals?
I’m one of those people who always has to have a book in her handbag and have been known to re-purchase books if I accidentally leave them at home. When I don’t have recourse to a bookstore or bookshelf, I find myself reading whatever text comes to hand—parking tickets, business cards, the back of the cereal box. I can’t help myself, it’s a compulsion. I read in the car (as a passenger) even thought it makes me queasy and I wouldn’t dream of hopping into the bath without a book. I don’t always read it, I just like to know that it’s there. I suspect this is genetic: my mum is also an avid bath reader and tells me that the worst thing about getting older and needing glasses is not being able to read in the tub anymore due to the steam. All the more reason to enjoy it now, I say.
What book influenced you to become a writer?
The book that most influenced me to become a writer is The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton because it was my first ‘favourite book’ (I used to read it before, during and after school when I was five years old) and the one that sparked the love of reading that has sustained me ever since. I’m a writer whose need to write stems from a need to read, so I’m indebted to Enid Blyton for capturing my young imagination. It’s funny, when I look at the books I write now, I can see her lingering influence—it is still mysteries and secrets and cottages on the edge of deep dark woods that dance around the edges of my mind.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
My husband is a jazz musician so music is a huge part of our lives. My tastes are very eclectic: I adore jazz music—from John Coltrane to Ella Fitzgerald to Madeleine Peyroux; Irish music; classical music, from the moody and melancholic to the utterly joyous; I love Radiohead, Nick Cave, Led Zeppelin, Portishead and my favourite album is Grace by Jeff Buckley.