You say Starfish is hard to define as a genre, is that like all your work?
Touching the Starfish was definitely a departure for me and I certainly felt let off the leash when I was writing it. My other work was, or can be, a bit more straightforward. This was the first time I’d tried to write a comic novel and the first time I’d mucked about with the form quite so much.
Was it hard to hook an agent/publisher for Starfish because of the difficulty of knowing the genre?
Actually no, but I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time when Unthank Books was founded. LINK TO UNTHANK
You worked as a copywriter, what is that exactly?
For a short while I worked for the Enid Blyton Company, just after the ‘brand’ was relaunched in the mid-nineties and all the licenses were up for grabs. I basically wrote promotional brochures for series, like The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. We also had to ‘update’ the characters as well, which once involved a whole morning deliberating what to call the imp in the Folk of the Faraway Tree because Enid had called him Chinky.
Oh, that’s so funny! Dear old Enid Blyton wasn’t very politically correct, was she?
What was even funnier about the Chinky business was that everyone was so blocked about the name that we dragged up from the stack another Enid book called The Christmas Imp, thinking we could nick that imp’s name and retitle Chinky but his name turned out to be Prick-Ears.
I bet you had some giggles! Have you always worked in the “writing field”? Is this because you’ve always held a long-time belief that you would eventually become published, or has your work made you want to become a writer?
I did always want to be a writer when I was a child but then again I probably wanted to be a Warlord of Atlantis as well. I wrote a lot in my teens, then forgot about it. It nagged, though. Things didn’t seem settled without it. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I had the confidence to start. But I suppose I have always worked in related fields. I’d wanted to work with books and worked in bookshops for about two years after I left university. Then I worked in publishing trade sales and international rights. This was before I started to write fiction, something that really got going when I had a year off on the dole. After the subsequent Enid Period I took an MA, mainly to buy some time, and it was after that that I started teaching and editing as a way to support myself and work on my writing. The writing for me is the priority though the teaching and editing do feed into it: write better, teach better, write better, teach better. I wouldn’t teach creative writing if I wasn’t getting my hands dirty myself and I’d be suspicious of any teacher who wasn’t a writer, too.
You have studied creative writing at university and obviously this will help, but do you think others who haven’t studied/been to university have less chance of being published?
It shouldn’t be that way, should it? Being a writer shouldn’t need a professional qualification like becoming a doctor or a loss adjuster. The best writers write because they need to and what they write is so distinct no one could teach it them how to do it. I suppose it depends on what type of market we’re talking about, too. A glace at the hardback fiction chart suggests that the writers who really shift copies probably didn’t study creative writing at university level, nor produce the sort of writing encouraged by such courses. If the work is strong, then not having an MA can be a positive advantage, I think. Publishers often want to sell an idea of an author before the novel, so “Jack Bratt has an MA in Creative Writing from UEA” may have less allure than “Jackie Bratby used to herd goats on Mount Ararat”. Then again, schooled writers often gain by osmosis a better idea of how the industry works and may make more professional approaches to publishers. They may also have better editing skills, too. Creative Writing course, if they’re any good, only really teach you how to edit.
As an editor, how frustrating is it to see authors’ potential yet know they will be turned down with a standard rejection letter? Have you not wanted to contact them and say, look if only you’d do this, this and this you would have a greater potential?
It can be frustrating, yes, and it has become harder and harder for a first book to find a publisher unless it’s obvious that it will sell very quickly in great quantity at discounted prices. In my work as a creative writing tutor and as an editor for the Literary Consultancy (I’ve appraised over eight hundred novels and only three of the authors have been published) I am always making suggestions about how a book can be materially and stylistically enhanced. I’m doing some editing for Unthank at the moment and have annotated some pieces and asked for them to be resubmitted. Editors in publishing houses used to do this. It’s because they don’t anymore that we have so many creative writing courses and literary consultancies.
Let’s talk about your current novel: Touching the Starfish is a fictional account about a writer, Nathan Flack who thinks he is haunted by a ghost called James O’Mailer. Is your character bonkers, or is he really haunted?
To answer that candidly would give away the end of the story! All I should say is confirm that, yes, that’s the premise. You need to read the last two parts of Starfish for a proper answer.
Starfish opens like a non-fiction how-to-write-a-novel book. Can you talk us through this process?
My basic idea for Touching the Starfish was for it to be a sort of Book Group style light comedy in which Nathan is forced to teach a group of eccentric students. It was easy then to structure the story around a course and give each part the name of the study topic, like Plot or Point of View. In each of these parts, Nathan would give some sort of (hapless) lecture on the topic at hand and in some places more emphasis would be given to the device, i.e. lots of talking in the Dialogue chapter. It’s really an organizing tool but it does mean you get a free textbook with your novel. If I could have wedged in a travel guide or car manual as well it could have been the perfect 3-for-2-table book. Why didn’t I think of that earlier? I’d be rolling in it.
The book is funny. Did you mean it to be, or did it change its direction half way through?
It was intended to be funny. I’ve always found it hard to relax when I write or when I give readings unless I get a laugh. Here, I did want there to be four or five funny lines or phrases per page. What did change the novel during the process was the more or less spontaneous inclusion of footnotes and a ghost character. These just occurred when I was writing the opening chapter and I ran with them. I didn’t really want to write a novel about teaching creative writing to start with and did it to amuse some friends initially. I suppose I was subverting the whole idea of a Book Group-style light comedy and I started to think of it as the least commercial novel imaginable. I didn’t quite anticipate that people were going to find it quite so funny, though I’m relieved that they do.
How many drafts?
There were two. It took quite a while to write the first draft, three years, but I write very methodically, going over and over each page until it reads like publishable prose. It then took me about three months to do the second. draft I diidn’t cut too many scenes and found myself only really making the first chapter better ground what happens later. This hasn’t always been my experience with drafting.
Did you self edit/self proof read considering your baskground, or did you get it professionally checked over?
Actually, we did it ourselves. It’s quite a steep learning curve because when it’s your own work and you know that you can spell the easy words correctly you forget that you can still mistype. The first edition of Starfish has a ‘shorts’ car where there should be a ‘sports’ car. Given that, if it’s your own work I would suggest getting a fresh pair of eyes to proof it.
This is your debut novel, but do you have other unpublished books tucked away somewhere?
Oh yes, there are four earlier novels. I wrote two in my twenties that received very enthusiastic rejection letters from editors.: “Potentially prize-winning author, writes like Donna Tartt but less good, show me what the does next bla bla bla”. My third novel got through this obstacle with a couple of big publishers but if the editors liked the book the sales people said it wasn’t ‘big’ enough to launch a season. My next book was by far the most mature, commercial and likeable, I think (it made some girls cry but in a good way, if you know what I mean), but I couldn’t even get anyone to read it. If this hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have written Touching the Starfish. It was a strange fifteen years getting here but I think I pulled something out of the fire towards the end.
How many “real life” incidents did you put into Starfish?
None really. The incidents are gross exaggerations of things that might have happened. What is drawn from real life is the atmosphere that Nathan lives in. His flat, for example, is pretty much the semi-uninhabitable frost bucket I was living in when I started to write the book. The spine of the book concerns Nathan’s attempts not to be the Chosen One in a supernatural conspiracy story that he doesn’t approve of. That’s not autobiographical, I’m afraid. I did make that bit up.
Do you write straight onto the computer, or do you research first, get the idea perfect in your head and then type away?
I do write directly into the computer, though strangely once I finished Starfish I started writing longhand in pencil again (though this was in winter and it was too cold to stay in the house so I wrote in cafes, something I’d never done before). Usually, when the sun is shining, I spend quite a long time making notes and busking ideas before I turn the computer on. I usually describe to myself what I am going to write, then type it up. The next day I’ll edit this passage before I write anything new. It builds up slowly. I do plan a lot. Even my paragraphs have plans
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a series of twelve stories called The Syllabus of Errors. They’re loosely connected or overlap but not in a Cloud Atlas way. I am also writing a sequel to Starfish called SubGrubStreet as a blog. Nathan can’t ignore the internet forever.
Is it in the same vein as Starfish?
SubGrubStreet obviously is in the same vein but the short stories are mixed. There are some historical stories set before World War Two and some contemporary ones that are more hard-edged than Starfish. Then again, the sort of too-well-read, windmill-tilting male character that I used in Starfish does crop up a lot. There’s also one story that uses footnotes to tell itself which is pretty much in the same vein as the novel. If I concentrated on only one form or tone I’d get bored. Some days I’m happy to gaze out of the window. Some days I want to put a brick through it.
Will you use Unthank Books again? How did you find them?
I certainly will. I was very lucky, really. I knew Robin Jones, Unthank’s founder, because he had been my agent in the past. It was very serendipitous.
When will the next novel be finished?
Well, The Syllabus will be finished this year. I’ve just written the penultimate story so there’s only one to go. Next year I’m intending to start another novel. I’ve got some plans. I am likely to muck about again and follow in the same vein as Starfish.
Writing fiction is a state of mind rather than a career. I think this is what a lot of beginners forget and it
Is there a link for your Literary Consultancy?
Yes, there is. TLC, the original and the best: http://www.literaryconsultancy.co.uk/