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  • Annette Allen

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Annette Allen is half English, half Norwegian, and she spent much of her childhood in Ethiopia and South Africa. She enjoys writing and has won awards for her corporate communications work, but Annette has always dreamt of helping the very poor. The Ethiopian Odyssey is her first book and some profits from the book will go to help provide water in Ethiopia.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Ethiopian Odyssey?

    Anette Allen: In 1995, I made my mind up I wanted to become a writer, and write about our common humanity, rather than the differences which so many prefer to focus on. I also wanted to donate half the proceeds from book sales to help the very poor. I began by writing some poetry, then some prose but was stuck on the idea for the first book. I’m also very spiritual and have the most amazing dreams which come true – a real gift! So, I used my strong faith and dreams to guide me: in April 2000, I dreamt I was back in the foothills of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, talking to an Ethiopian couple about poverty and drought. Mid-conversation I bent down to feel the dry topsoil and knew – beyond all doubt – that I was there to help provide water. With that thought the dream faded. So, I had my subject matter – a friends reunited story to find nine former classmates from my schooldays – and the cause: providing water by donating almost half of the royalties to help WaterAid in Ethiopia.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it?

    AA: I wrote as I went along, as the book is as much about the journey as my classmates – and my dreams too! All in all, about six months. And a month to rewrite half the book, following the editor’s comments!

    MT: Tell us a little about your own schooldays in Ethiopa Annette?

    AA: I was the only English girl in the class and the youngest. Nazareth School was a very good Catholic girls school, and the top in the country (which I only realised afterwards). We were taught in English apart from Amharic lessons – the teachers were strict, but the education was the best I ever had. There were seven different nationalities in the class, and lunchtimes were a real treat, with lots of different food. Two of my classmates were Emperor Haile Selassie’s grand daughters: Mary and Sihin Asfaw Wossen, and another classmate was Hiruth Girma, the daughter of Ethiopia’s current President! I was only there for two years though, and left in July 1964.

    MT: How difficult was it going about self-publishing your book?

    AA: I had a literary agent, who loved the story, but when she saw I was determined to include my dreams and some aspects of my faith in the book, she dropped it. Every publisher told me it would never sell, but I’d made a promise to the Nazareth headteacher, Sister Weynemariam, and Marta Asrat (the first classmate I met in March 2004) who was the school secretary, that I’d launch it there in 2006. It cost me more self-publishing, but I’m proud of the layout and every word. And I kept my promise – the President turned up to the event, and it made the front page news of the newspapers and the TV news the next day too!

    MT: Has the book achieved all that you would have wished?

    AA: It’s very early days, as it’s only available online from next week. But I’ve loved giving talks about it, and doing book signings. People are so touched about the odyssey that many have been in tears when they’ve spoken to me. I’ve also been interviewed by radio stations and newspapers, which has been great fun. Most of all though, I long for the sales which will bring the water to Mamali and his family – a Muslim family whom I write about in the book, who live in south east Ethiopia.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    AA: Straight onto the PC, from my notebooks! Straight off, and then edited for sense and clarity the next day. With non-fiction, every interview was double-checked and approved by the people concerned, and there’s lots of academic references for those who want to know more, at the end of each relevant chapter.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing and travelling?

    AA: I do interim corporate communications work – I’m always writing, in one way or another! I love helping people see the connections between their job and the ‘big picture’ – a bit like my book, which shows readers the connections between us all.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    AA: I always saw my readers as people from 14-100, interested in the power of dreams, and what happens to your life when you decide to follow your calling. I hope the Odyssey will inspire a few to make their dreams come true, and help give the very poor a hand-up in the process.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    AA: I’m tracking down my remaining classmates (I’ve found 24 out of 38) and planning to include those willing to share their life stories in volume II. Oh, and to feature a new photo of us as we are today, taken on the same school steps, on the front cover!

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    AA: Alexander McCall Smith, for his humour and gentleness. Paul Theroux for his wonderful travel writing. I felt that if I could emulate both, I could be onto a winning formula – I want my readers to feel they’re sitting beside me as these amazing events and connections happen along the journey.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    AA: Listen to your heart, and write about what you’re passionate about. Don’t let anyone deter you, because if you have the creative urge, you’ve just got to let it flow. Write as much for yourself as for your readers.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    AA: Perhaps living your life with love is a little odd these days, but I’ve found enormous freedom in what I’ve done, and would like to share this with others. And when you set out with a dream in your heart, the kindness of strangers is overwhelming!

  • Michael Muhammad Knight

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Michael Muhammad Knight grew up Irish Catholic and converted to Islam aged 16, after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. At 17 he traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan to study in a madrassah at Faisal Mosque. His first novel is The Taqwacores.

    Mark Thwaite: Before we get on to your novel, Michael, tell us a little about how an Irish Catholic kid like yourself becomes a Muslim?

    Michael Muhammed Knight: I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X around the same time that the movie came out, and that was the same year that I met my father for the first time. He turned out to be a white supremacist. He asked where I leaned religiously, I answered "Muslim" and he spit out some racial slurs. That only encouraged me to press forward with it. I was conscious of Islam as a correction of everything wrong in America and my own little life.

    MT: What gave you the idea for The Taqwacores?

    MMK: After crashing and burning as a fundamentalist, I hoped for a new Islamic experience with more room for individuality, creative chaos and honest expression within the community. Punk rock seemed to have the answer.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it?

    MMK: It took a couple of months, if I remember. Then I just started xeroxing copies, numbering pages with vinyl stickers and binding the books by hand. My plan was to travel from mosque to mosque and hand it out in parking lots, but that didn't work too well. Then I started posting online at message boards, offering to ship the book to anyone on my own dime. After mailing books to places like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, I couldn't afford to do it anymore. Then Alternative Tentacles, the punk rock record label founded by Jello Biafra, decided to include The Taqwacores in their catalog.

    MT: Do you hope The TaqwacoresThe Taqwacores will help readers understand a little better the complexity and diversity of Muslims and help, a little, to lessen the rampant Islamophobia we see around us?

    MMK: Honestly, I had never thought about non-Muslims reading The Taqwacores. My original version had no glossary, since I was perfectly fine with alienating non-Muslim readers. Now non-Muslims are telling me that they got something good out of the book and I still don't know how to feel about it, because it wasn't meant for them. But whoever reads this story, I hope that I've given them something positive.

    MT: One of your characters, Jehangir, is a pot-smoking Sufi punk. I'd be keen to know more about your interest in both punk and Sufism.

    MMK: I don't know if I'd call Jehangir a Sufi. I know that I'm not one. I'm somewhat afraid to use that term because Sufism represents a very mature commitment. Jehangir's only Sufi virtue is that he really does love Allah with all of his heart, and he does put his life in Allah's Hands with absolute faith.

    As a teenager I believed that stringed instruments were prohibited by Islam, so I didn't encounter punk rock until college. It offered a whole competing mythology to me. The punk kids I hung out with had this heroism to them, they really lived it out like they were taking on the whole world. Punk was a way to hate everything but in a life-affirming way, if that makes any sense.

    MT: How do you write Michael? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    MMK: My stuff becomes more technically sound when I can see it on the computer, because I can improve it as I go, but the energy's better when I'm just outside somewhere scribbling on paper. It's like Allah said, "you have the power, but you have no refinement." The raw power's on the paper, but then I refine it on the computer. I edit more now than I used to. I think the key to good writing is to recognize when I've written badly.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    MMK: Nothing. It's a very real problem. Most of the time I only want to write. I've started to get better about it: I make a point of taking days off, and I've started to watch junk TV just to relax. And this weekend I'm going to Detroit for WrestleMania.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    MMK: I try to avoid that thought. I'm a bad driver when other people are in the car, because I end up looking at them instead of the road.

    I honestly thought that noone would read The Taqwacores. A photocopied novel filled with obscure Muslim references and punk-rock references? I was sure that the Islam would alienate the punks and the punk would alienate the Muslims. Now it's being read by non-punk non- Muslims, I never could have dreamed it.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    MMK: I've just finished a nonfiction project about my experiences in American Muslim counterculture, and I also have a finished novel coming out next year, Osama Van Halen, featuring Amazing Ayyub and Rabeya from The Taqwacores. I've now started to mess around with my third novel, and I also have another research project in the works. I might want to take a break at some point, but it seems that each book begets three more.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    MMK: My favorite author is F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Taqwacores actually contains some Fitzgerald references, but most of them aren't obvious. My favorite book is Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, because it just tells its story through characters. There's no real plot, just a guy who goes around getting all these odd people to confide in him and that sums up this town that he's about to leave behind. He's doing what writers do.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    MMK: Writers write. Writers don't go to parties and talk about what they're writing. They sit at home and do the work.

  • Marek Kohn

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Mark Thwaite: In your most recent book, A Reason For Everything, you talk about the different impact Darwinian thinking has had in Britain compared with the rest of Europe and the US. How do you account for this difference?

    Marek Kohn: The distinguishing feature of English evolutionary thought has been its attitude to adaptation. An adaptationist tends to see the work of natural selection in every aspect of an organism - a reason for everything. You see bands on a snail's shell: you wonder what good the bands do for the snail. And you go out into the field, and you look for possible reasons for them. In the case of the snails there's a camouflage effect - different coloured or banded shells are better suited to different habitats, such as leaf litter or grass. Not the whole story but a robust example of English adaptationism in practice.

    The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould called this the British "hang-up", and his colleague the geneticist Richard Lewontin said that it arose in large part from the fascination for butterflies, snails, birds and gardens typical of the pre-war upper middle class from whose ranks these scientists mostly came. True enough, though it doesn't acknowledge the fascination with natural history that used to run right across the social spectrum. Also one can see its roots in Victorian natural history, which of course is where all this began. As Alfred Russel Wallace observed, it was a fascination with species and the subtle distinctions between them - beetle-collecting - that allowed him and Darwin to realise, independently, how natural selection works.

    If by contrast your vision is shaped, as that of their counterparts on the continent was, by idealist philosophy, you are unlikely to see what is going on in nature. Idealism is concerned with ideal types and therefore discounts variation as 'noise'. You need to be fascinated by variation to see natural selection, because variations are what nature selects.

    The British enthusiasm for natural history may also underlie differences in scientific practice. In France, by contrast, field biology never flourished because science was seen as a formal discipline that required the proper setting of the laboratory. So, we have a tradition of natural history and a tendency towards empiricism rather than idealism. Britain also had a more accommodating mainstream religious environment, which adjusted to evolution with relatively little difficulty. And in the 20th century the natural history was combined with mathematical analysis, demonstrating the power of natural selection.

    MT: Are we in Britain therefore right to have been more receptive?

    MK: The record of English evolutionary thought demonstrates conclusively that we are, in terms of biological knowledge and theory. But the social and ethical ideas of one or two of the thinkers I discussed also illustrate the disturbing results of an all-pervasive belief in natural selection.

    MT: So you don't think this has had a negative impact on, say, more philosophical and/or postmodernist approaches to questions of human society and culture?

    MK: Facing up to natural selection is an ongoing challenge. I think it's regrettable that it has developed into a kind of cold war between scholarly blocs.

    MT: In your superb earlier book, As We Know It: Coming To Terms With An Evolved Mind, you said that we should "learn to stop worrying and love sociobiology", and that the discipline has "too much potential to be left to the sociobiologists". What did you mean? Can it really be safe to go back into the dangerous waters where Darwinism and the social sciences mix?

    MK: We're evolved organisms and our nature is evolved too. We need to accept that in order to understand how individuals and groups behave. It's how I think about behaviour at the everyday level and on the broadest scale.

    But sociobiologists for their part need to accept that the social sciences may have insights into how human societies and institutions work. Sociobiologists are endlessly and often justifiably indignant about the obfuscation with which their proposals are greeted from the other camp, but never seem to see any great problem in their own indifference to, or contempt for, any discipline outside the sciences. And most importantly, I think they should accept that their work is practiced in and influenced by its social context.

    If Darwinism and the social sciences actually did mix, the waters would become a lot less dangerous. Though that's not to say that our evolved minds are how we'd like them to be.

    MT: Why do you think that progressive thinkers have, in general, failed to take this more positive approach to sociobiology?

    MK: People want to believe that humans are different. They want to believe that there is a separate domain, outside biology, for understanding humans. And they have also grown up, since World War 2, with a deep-rooted sense that applying biology to people is evil. We have thus arrived at a post-war settlement that established separate spheres of influence for science and other fields of scholarship. Much of what's going on is turf wars.

    MT: But aren't there limits to Darwinism? Do you agree with your friend Kenan Malik that there are some things science just cannot tell us about human nature?

    MK: I don't think there's a line beyond which Darwinism has nothing to say. In any given question I would always, I think, see Darwinian processes at work, but these are best at explaining general effects. They may not be much use for understanding individual cases or subjective experience, although they may well be a necessary perspective on these.

    I suspect that in practice the limits of Darwinism may be set by the willingness of its practitioners to synthesise their insights with those of other forms of understanding. I mean, you could go through novels showing how characters illustrate evolved psychological patterns of behaviour, but that would be a pretty banal exercise on its own.

    MT: Do we really have "stone age minds", as evolutionary psychology suggests?

    MK: I'd like to think so, in one respect. Among other things, the idea of a 'stone age mind' is a device that addresses perhaps the biggest historical obstacle to human sociobiology: the discrediting of the assumption that different population groups - races - vary in evolved mental capacities. If you imply that the mind stopped evolving in the stone age, you head off suggestions that different mental capacities evolved in the different groups that differentiated in the last 10,000 years or so.

    Evolutionary psychology (which is a particular form of sociobiology) has been distinguished by its emphasis on human universals, but it is next door to the hereditarians who are concerned with differences in mental capacities. It seems to me that the distinction between the two approaches is being removed.

    MT: In A Reason For Everything, you make the intriguing point, outlined above, that the best evolutionary thinkers have been those who 'got their hands dirty' in the field. These scientists were less likely to get carried away with abstract theory and more likely to stumble upon the truth because they had their feet on the ground in the practical work of the real world. This sounds like a very Marxist argument! Would you call yourself a 'Marxist' or 'socialist'?

    MK: The point I was making there was that field biology - going out and studying organisms in the field, rather than in the laboratory - was a fundamental and distinguishing element in the British approach to the study of evolution. As it happens, the one prominent Marxist in the series I wrote about, J.B.S. Haldane, made his contributions through mathematical calculations and wasn't a natural historian. On the other hand he was spectacularly practical, exposing himself to poison gas and potentially lethal extremes of cold and pressure in studies related to trench and submarine warfare. I'm certainly not a Marxist. I have the 'All that is solid melts into air ...' quote from the Communist Manifesto on the wall above my desk, but that's about it.

    I do, however, call myself a socialist. For a long time I wondered whether that meant anything more than a nostalgic wave in the direction of what I believed in when I was a student, but since I became aware of the work of Richard Wilkinson and others on the effects of social relations on health, I have recovered my confidence in the term.

    For me it involves the understanding that broadly equal social relations are good for health and that unequal ones are harmful. This can be measured right across the scale of severity, in deaths from heart disease to rates of cold infections; it relates to broader measures of individual and social well-being, such as a sense of trust in others.

    The implication is that we need to reassert the importance of equality and rediscover the fundamental value of social solidarity. It implies examining how these human needs can be reconciled with the need to produce wealth efficiently. It means recognising how the need for social solidarity is expressed in contemporary political forms. And it means prising these values from the dead hand of Bolshevism.

    MT: Who is Richard Wilkinson?

    MK: He’s a professor of social epidemiology at Nottingham University. His work looks at the body of evidence that inequality is harmful to health in itself, not just because it implies different levels of wealth or resources. The classic findings are in the 'Whitehall studies', conducted by Michael Marmot and his colleagues in London. They found that the lowest ranking civil servants were several times more likely to die of heart disease than those in the highest grades. The usual suspect lifestyle factors such as smoking accounted for only about a third of the risk, so the lowest grades appeared to be about three times likelier to die of heart disease because of their position in the hierarchy.

    The mechanism researchers like these favour is that the damage results from being in a chronic (that is, long-term) fight-or-flight mode. When an animal, human or otherwise, comes under threat, it will go into an emergency mode in which resources are diverted from activities such as bodily maintenance and immune defence, into escape or combat mechanisms. Staying in emergency mode incurs the costs of neglecting the activities that have been inhibited. Being subordinate - always under a kind of threat, and limited in options - is thought to induce this chronic state of emergency.

    Control over one's job seems to be a key factor here, so the most obvious things to do involves restructuring work to increase job control. But that's just the start. This really is a transformative way of looking at what's wrong with affluent societies. It also suggests that what is good for the poor is good for those who are materially comfortable too: that globally the interests of the genuinely impoverished can be aligned with those of the majority of people in developed market democracies, and that within the latter, it should be possible to build coalitions that unite populations in the pursuit of truly healthy societies.

    MT: You say you’re not a Marxist. Does that mean that, in your view, the “dialectical biology” of people like Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin is wrong? Can there be such a thing as dialectical biology? Could it properly be called science?

    MK: John Maynard Smith, the other one of my subjects who went through a Marxist phase, studied genetics and came to realise there was "something deeply undialectical' about genes. He was taught that 'genes control development', which irked him: as a dialectical thinker, he thought that development should influence genes in turn. But John Maynard Smith had to accept that nature doesn't care whether it is dialectical or not. Where it is, then biology might be dialectical; everywhere else the approach would be metaphysics, not science.

    MT: What philosophers of science inform your work, if any?

    MK: I generally just ask myself "What would John Maynard Smith have said?"

    MT: And what about books generally: what are your favourite books? Do you read widely outside of science?

    MK: Of course: I'm a writer, not a scientist. But not as widely as I should. If it's obscure, fictional and central European, it's for me! Mostly this places me somewhere between the wars, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire (the collected works of Joseph Roth) but I was delighted to find that this lost world of Central Europe between the wars can be represented by a writer (Pawel Huelle's Mercedes Benz) facing the future and contemplating what actually-existing, market-democratic freedom actually means. The story is set in Poland not long after the transition to market democracy and revolves around the narrator’s efforts to learn to drive. There’s a wonderful opening scene where he gets into an uncomfortable position between a tram and a lorry, and with the drivers bearing down on him turns to his instructor and tells her about a dramatic motoring incident that happened to his grandmother in 1925. So he’s trying to make progress, to modernize, but he still needs to call upon the past. Although driving is the archetypal capitalist freedom, in practice it entails submission to endless constraints, and history is not the same as progress. Besides its metaphorical strength, the theme of driving provides a highly effective means to reflect on the past without sinking into nostalgia. (See Marek's review of Mercedes Benz.)

    Favourite quote: the first sentence of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, which might well be the desert island book choice too. The quote is: “Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,-- the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,-- the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy December, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults."

    MT: Anything else you'd like to say?

    MK: I have to pause for breath here but there's plenty more on my website including a number of articles that explore and perhaps clarify themes I've alluded to here.

  • Anthony McCarten

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    The Book Depository: What gave you the idea for Death of a Superhero Anthony?

    Anthony McCarten: I was talking with a friend, also a writer, and he mentioned a news item that we had both seen, where an Australian psychologist had taken a 14 year old with terminal cancer to a hooker just so the boy wouldn’t die a virgin, and we both agreed it would make a great story. The real life event was an enormous scandal, mainly because the shrink, a close friend of the boy’s family, had not consulted the parents at all. I became curious about the relationship that must have evolved between the boy and the shrink to make the guy perform hara-kiri with his career: he was subsequently struck off the register. As with every novel I have written, I liken this embarkation point to standing outside a strange house at night and seeing the people inside dancing to some music I cannot hear. Working out exactly what that music might be is, for me, the business of writing.

    BD: How long did it take you to write it? Is that typical for you!?

    AM: This was not a typical book to write for me. Either I took in too much coffee or it was something in the air in Corfu where I wrote the bulk of this short book, but it all came to me in a mad exhilarating dash. At one point I was writing 20 pages a day and in four weeks I had finished the first draft. But then, of course, the real business of writing began: the art of rewriting. Anyone can write but only the professional has the ruthless tenacity to polish and polish and polish. For me, the struggle is to stop polishing and I tend to tail my publishers car to the printers shouting out last minute changes.

    BD: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    AM: Starting out as a journalist at 17, I learned to type with two fingers on bulky old Imperial typewriters and so a computer is best for me, a liberation, though I can imagine the old demand of physically rewriting every sentence for the ‘final copy’ would make you really re-listen to the music of your sentences.

    BD: Have you been happy with the response to your book?

    AM: Death of a Superhero is only just out in the UK so it is too early to say what the critical reaction will be but in New Zealand where the novel came out last year the reviews were very, very kind.

    BD: You do you read the critics/reviews then Anthony?

    AM: I am unable to resist this unique self-torture. Perhaps it is because I was raised Catholic, or perhaps my curiosity makes me want to know whether I have created a strong reaction in readers, and the reviewer is often your first reader so for a while its all you’ve got to go on. But in the end, I feel about the reviewer as a tree must feel about a dog!

    BD: Do you have much contact with your readers?

    AM: Book groups, library readings and literature festivals are the show biz of being a novelist and I do enjoy these ventures into the sunlight.

    BD: Do you have an idea of your "typical" reader? Do you write specifically for them?

    AM: I write specifically for everyone and no one. So far all my books have reached their target audiences.

    BD: What are you working on now?

    AM: As always, I am currently writing the best novel I will ever write. I shall be writing with this elevated belief till the day I die. Today this passion is embodied in a tale about an endurance contest, which really happened, but which also looks at multiple storylines of people who are enduring all manner of human troubles.

    BD: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    AM: The list is obvious to me, but we are all so different. For me, Garcia Marquez is the living master who has lately succeeded Saul Bellow and the playwright Arthur Miller, RIP.

    BD: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    AM: Read the best writers with joy and allow yourself to imagine you are great. Then, even if the music you describe, the music which the people in the window are dancing to, is strange to the world, persevere, because it will be your own bold and unique music.

    BD: Anything else you would like to say Anthony?

    AM: Unprompted I never have anything to say. Thank you. Good luck. And be careful when you cross the street.

  • Mike Stocks

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    The Book Depository: What gave you the idea for White Man Falling Mike?

    Mike Stocks: The premise of White Man Falling is that a white man falls out of the sky into a small south Indian town, causing all kinds of curious ramifications – spiritual, romantic and domestic – in the complicated lives of the main characters and their wider community. I can no longer remember the trigger point for that idea, but I’ve had a thing about Tamil Nadu in south India for some years, to the extent that I’ve even grappled with the language during three terms of evening classes at SOAS in London. At my most triumphant I attained a comedy schoolboy-French level of competence. And I’ve travelled in Tamil Nadu a lot. On my last stay there I rented a flat in an undistinguished suburb for six months, for a fiver a week, and just observed the lives going on around me. I suppose my characters started to assemble, and my story started to form, during that time.

    BD: How long did it take you to write your novel Mike?

    MS: It was done in uneven phases to fit around my work as an editor, my other writing projects, and my lovingly tended bouts of writer’s self pity; but around eighteen months, all told.

    BD: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    MS: That’s a nitty-gritty, trainspotter’s question – which is fine – and here’s my nitty-gritty, trainspotter’s answer. I write my prose on a laptop, in a variety of places: at home, in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and in cafes all over. But I don’t start writing until I have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel researched and planned, which takes about six months. When I do commence the writing, each day I generally spend twice as long in messing around with what I’ve already written than in writing new stuff, so there’s always a deep-level edit going on. Eventually this dance of one-step-forwards, two-steps-back somehow results in the first draft of a book. At that point I feel fantastic, sometimes for as long as twelve seconds. Then it’s back to the beginning and a thorough revision through to the end. Only then do I think I might have a working draft, something I’m prepared to show to someone else. In the case of White Man Falling, my editor was pretty happy with most aspects of the book at that stage, and gave me practical suggestions for those parts of the book he was unhappy with – most of which I agreed with and acted on. I enjoy being edited well. Then the book goes through further layers of polishing and buffing up – the winnowing of adverbs and adjectives, the further sharpening of descriptions, and all that malarkey. Both myself and my editor are inveterate tinkerers, so the process of revision just goes on and on until the last moment.

    BD: What do you do when you are not writing?

    MS: I edit other people’s novels, for money; I run and edit a small poetry magazine, not for money – it’s called Anon and it uses an anonymous submissions procedure, so I like to think there is a radical aspect to its tiny impact on the world; and I write poetry. Writing poetry is my main creative interest. A major component of writing – for me at least – involves waiting to have something to say, and when it comes to poetry I do much more waiting than writing. I’m like a bloke standing on a desolate canal-side from dawn till dusk, staring into the grimy ripples, solemnly chewing on his Tunnocks Caramel Wafer as he waits for his float to start bobbing up and down. Most days nothing happens – but you need to go fishing if you’re going to catch a fish.

    BD: Do you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Do you write specifically for them?

    MS: I’m new to being published, so part of me finds it difficult to move on from the notion that my ideal reader is “a reader”. But the real answers to these questions are “No” and “No”. Although White Man Falling is my first published novel, five unpublished novels preceded it, and they are so diverse that I doubt there’s a reader alive who could be interested in all of them: there’s a campus comedy, there’s a second-novel-syndrome book that is too harrowingly bad to describe in public, there’s a literary-historical mystery, there’s a commercial eco-thriller, and finally there’s a contemporary literary novel. Then there’s my poetry, and I also write translations of the poetry of the 19th century Italian poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli. I just write the kind of stuff that I enjoy reading, so I suppose I’m my ideal reader…

    BD: What are you working on now?

    MS: Nothing. I’m doing my best to help Alma Books promote White Man Falling, and I’m enjoying giving my recently published poetry collection Folly a little push. And it would be nice, when I’m standing on that desolate canal-side I was talking about, for a big fat perch of a poem to attach itself to my line. As for my next novel, I have a setting in mind, and I think the story is beginning to form – but I feel that the first step in writing it is not writing it yet. 

    BD: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    MS: I’m not big on favourites, but E.A. Robinson and Robert Frost have written poems that are amazing at the highest level – my definition of ‘amazing at the highest level’ being that that the poems seemed amazing when they were written, they seem amazing now, and I suspect they will seem amazing in the future. So those writers are the ones I admire the most. I arrived at these American poets via the English poets Betjeman, Larkin and Auden. But my love of a powerful poem seems pretty irrelevant these days. When you consider the pre-eminence of poetry in the literary culture of the recent past, poetry today seems little more than an old ruin with some shrubs growing in the rubble, starved of light by the surrounding vista of skyscrapers that is the novel.  

    My favourite novelist is probably Evelyn Waugh; Decline and Fall, though not his best novel, is the work I’m most fond of – as much for the part it has played in my life as for the book itself.

    BD: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    MS: I’ve got more to say about this than anything else! In theory I could be a cracking tipster for aspiring writers. Just look at my qualifications: I’m forty, and my first novel and poetry collection are out this year; I have five unpublished novels under my belt, the first of which was written when I was twenty-four; I could have put out a really good debut poetry collection by the time I was thirty, but no one wanted it; and although I attracted four literary agents during my years of being an aspiring writer, even with their heavy guns behind me I just couldn’t break through... My first agent advised me that it often takes young writers ten years to break through. I remember thinking, are you crazy? – it won’t take me anything like ten years to break through. And I was right. It took seventeen.

    Tips are useful – for example, when I wrote my commercial novel, I found the practical advice in Al Zuckerman’s rather embarrassingly titled Writing A Blockbuster Novel to be invaluable – but at the same time I feel that the serious aspiring writer should always retain his or her autonomy, and not get swept away by a mentor or a creative writing course or a system or an obsession with networking. Serious aspiring writers are the people who know they’re writers because they don’t stop writing books no matter how difficult their circumstances and no matter how bleak their publishing outlook. That kind of person will learn everything about the practice of writing (and the jungle of publishing) from first principles, by becoming more and more professional and experienced as they go along. Outside help can speed things up, but sometimes at a price that isn’t worth paying.

    It’s the non-serious aspiring writer – the people who would write / finish their books if the circumstances were right, if someone would hold their hand tightly enough – who really want and need tips. But no amount of tips can compensate for a lack of drive.

    It’s sad to report that if you have some cachet in another field – journalism is the classic example – then you have a head start; and it’s tragic to report that if you are a celebrity gardener / TV presenter / comedian etc, then you can sell your book before it’s been written, regardless of how good or bad it might turn out to be. But don’t get hung up on that, it’s out of your control.

    The bottom line is that unless you’re a very stable person – which, if you’re a serious aspiring writer, you almost certainly aren’t – then you’re likely to endure sustained periods of confidence-sapping rejection. You are investing much of your self-worth in the belief that you are a writer, in a world which doesn’t seem to share that belief. In the worse case scenarios (er, see above) the years slip away and you become terrified that the lucky break is not going to happen – because luck is a big factor in your publishing fate, no matter how talented you might be. I was an aspiring writer for longer than most, so I can fully empathize. What can I say? I don’t want to sound like Rudyard Kipling, but if you can carry on in the knowledge that failure is by far the likeliest outcome, with all the costs that imposes on your knackered psyche, then you’re probably a writer.

    BD: Anything else you would like to say?

    MS: I’ve probably said too much… 

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