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  • Alision Goodman

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Alison Goodman lives in bayside Melbourne, Australia with her husband and their Jack Russell Terrier. She was a D.J. O'Hearn Memorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne, holds a Master of Arts degree and teaches creative writing at postgraduate level. Her debut novel was the award-winning futuristic thriller, Singing the Dogstar Blues, and her second, the acclaimed Killing the Rabbit. She is currently writing the sequel to The Two Pearls of Wisdom.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing The Two Pearls of Wisdom?

    Alison Goodman: I was reading a book about Feng Shui as research for my second novel, a modern crime thriller, when I came across a very short paragraph about an early Emperor who ordered all his Feng Shui masters to build him a palace stronghold of power and good luck. As soon as the masters had finished the palace, the Emperor had them all executed, just in case they used their magic in the service of another King. As soon as I read that, the idea for The Two Pearls of Wisdom just exploded in my mind. I grabbed a pen and paper and, in ten minutes, wrote the storyline. It was one of those rare moments when a story just arrives: a true gift.

    MT: What draws you to the Fantasy genre?

    AG: I really enjoy the grand scale of the genre, the scope to explore big ideas within an adventure storyline, and building the world.

    MT: Eon has to disguise herself as a boy to get on: is your novel secretly a feminist tract!?

    AG: I never write with any “message” in mind – for me, that is the fastest way to write a boring book. Instead, I write from character, plot, and theme, and layer these to explore ideas such as the use and abuse of power.

    MT: How long did it take you to write your book Alison?

    AG: About two and half years, sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time.

    MT: Are there more adventures to come from Eon? When might we expect to see them?

    AG: I'm currently working on the concluding sequel to The Two Pearls of Wisdom, which is titled The Necklace of the Gods (and having a ball writing it). It is scheduled for 2010. I’ve always only imagined two books in the series – a duology – but I’ve also learned to never say never!

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

    AG: I write directly into the computer. When I sit down to write, I always read a section of the previous day’s work (usually aloud to “hear” the rhythms and tone), edit that section, then start writing new words. So, | only write one draft, but it is a constantly edited draft.

    MT: Your book is partly based on the ancient lores of Chinese astrology and Feng Shui -- have they long been passions?

    AG: My auntie was Japanese and brought her culture into my very anglo-Australian family. When I was a child, I didn’t think much about it, but now I realise that it had a very big effect on me, sparking a life-long interest in eastern cultures that has taken many forms including studying Feng Shui, practising Tai-Chi and travelling in a number of Asian countries.

    MT: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your novel Alison? How did you overcome it?

    AG: There is always a moment in a novel, around the 40,000 – 50,000 word mark which can be a bit hairy – not quite half way and usually in the second act. I call it the mid-book blues when my stamina is low and the early rush of excitement is over. The only way to overcome it is to grit my teeth and write through it to the new energy that comes with reaching half-way and heading towards the third act and the climax.

    MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your books? What have you learned from them?

    AG: I usually do read the critics and have been very pleased with the responses to my books. I recently received a very good review in The Times for The Two Pearls of Wisdom which was a big thrill. What seems to be popping up in a lot of my reviews for The Two Pearls of Wisdom is that readers are a bit miffed that they have to wait for the sequel and want it NOW. So, no pressure then…

    MT: What do you do in your free time!?

    AG: I spend time with my husband, walk and play with my Jack Russell Terrier, read everyday, watch movies and TV, see family and friends, and search out great cafes and restaurants. I also drink a lot of coffee.

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

    AG: I write for a reader that likes a fast-paced plot, but also likes characters that have depth and psychological truth, and a story that explores big ideas – which is pretty much what I like to read.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    AG: I am working on the concluding sequel to The Two Pearls of Wisdom which is titled The Necklace of the Gods, and a paranormal short story for an anthology collection.

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

    AG: I know it is a bit of a cop-out, but I have so many authors who I love to read that it is too hard to narrow it down do just one favourite. To name a few: Diana Gabaldon, Daniel Pennac, Dean Koontz, Phillipa Gregory.

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

    AG: Read your work aloud and listen to the rhythms of your own writing. Read as much and as widely as possible. Learn some craft – either from writing books or classes. Use original and specific detail. And finally, that classic piece of advice, show don’t tell.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    AG: Just thanks for inviting me to contribute! And the sequel is on its way…

  • Rab Houston

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Rab Houston is professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews. He has published a dozen books on Scottish, English and European social history, including Autism in History and Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture and Education, 1500-1800. His Scotland: A Very Short Introduction is published by Oxford University Press.

    Mark Thwaite: What made you want to write a Very Short Introduction to Scotland Rab?

    Rab Houston: Scotland now is at a watershed. The experience of political devolution since 1999 has gone hand in hand with dramatic changes in Scottish society since c.1980. Union with England has ceased to be a constitutional fixture and become a constitutional option. The demographic, religious and social structures that underpinned life for half a millennium have been altered so radically that Scotland is almost a new country. Yet at the same time Scots are their history: for centuries completely independent and only more recently part of the United Kingdom. The experience of being Scottish and British creates a tension in our lives that all Scots feel, but not all understand. I wanted to explain it and to explore the influence of history on the making of modern Scotland. Scotland is fascinating in itself. But it also offers an example of a successful diffusion of political power: an issue confronted by nation states across Europe and the world. When I lecture abroad (most recently in Japan and the US) I find people sympathetic towards Scotland, but aware that they don’t know as much as they would like to about its people and its history. So I tried to write a book that could be accessible to anyone interested in Scotland, not just academics, university students and secondary school pupils, but also visitors here for work or leisure as well as Scottish expatriates around the world.

    MT: How long did it take you to write and research your book Rab?

    RH: About a year. Because I have worked in Scottish (and English) history for 30 years I already knew a lot of the literature, but there were many areas that I was only dimly aware of like the early church and local government in the modern era. A year is very short for an academic monograph and I'd normally expect to take between three and five years on a book, though it could be up to four times the length of this Very Short Introduction to Scotland.

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

    RH: I compose at the keyboard. Words come easily to me, but my first drafts always need lots of revision and I write iteratively, moving around blocks of text and rephrasing. That means I go through multiple versions before I reach a text with which I'm reasonably happy. Then I try to leave it alone for as long as I can -- usually when a draft is with the publisher's readers -- before doing the final version.

    MT: Do you enjoy the research or are you always itching to get down to the actual writing?

    RH: I love both and I count it an extraordinary privilege to be able to work at my hobby. Research brings the thrill of discovery; writing the challenge of making it all cohere into what is hopefully a lucid and clear way. For the sort of writing I do I find it best to hold off writing until I have a clear idea of the main arguments I want to put forward in each section. The later I leave my first draft the less re-writing I have to do.

    MT: What was the most interesting/unusual/unexpected fact you learned about Scotland in the course of your research?

    RH: Two things. First, despite appearances Scotland really was and is nothing like England. The experience of Union with England since 1707 has made Scots think of themselves as British, but this never overlaid their pride in the many things that made them different. Second, how incredibly varied such a small country is locally and regionally: you can see that with accents, but also with churchgoing, holidays, festivals and even architecture.

    MT: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    RH: My publisher gave me a word limit that is shorter than a short novel. In that space I had to explain Scotland’s past and how it has shaped her present at a critical stage in her history. I think that a nation is its history and I had to cover everything from economics to environment, law to language, population to poetry, and socialism to sectarianism. To overcome the problem of space I had to leave a lot out, but to give the book coherence and spirit I let some of myself come out in it -- something academics are warned never to do! So most of the time I try to be balanced and fair about things like the Highland clearances of population or the legacy of distrust, double-dealing, broken promises, and betrayal that continues to invigorate relations between Scotland and England today. But there are other times when I just have to tell it as I see it. Those are the bits I enjoyed writing most.

    MT: What do you hope your book will achieve Rab?

    RH: My aim is to help Scots understand themselves in time and to make it easier for those interested in Scotland to see what makes its people tick. In particular I’d like Scots to be more aware of their public past. To be alive is to be touched by history and few nations feel that touch more than Scotland. Yet our vision of our history is dominated by battles and kings and queens. For me, the way Scots are now is also shaped by institutions that are fascinating in their own right, including a distinctive legal system, a national church and a separate educational system.

    I'd also like the rest of the world to understand Scotland for what it is: a part of Britain, but also a distinct nation rather than just a backward version of England waiting to catch up.

    MT: What is your own favourite book of Scottish history?

    RH: For fiction it has to be Scott's Heart of Midlothian. It tells us an enormous amount in strikingly vivid terms about life in historic Scotland and it is a rattling good read. Smout's History of the Scottish People is probably the most important scholarly work of the past two generations in making de-mythologised Scottish history popular with general readers and a part of the academic mainstream.

    MT: What are your reading right now?

    RH: For pleasure Arnaldur Indridason's Silence of the Grave. One of my Ph.D. students who just got his degree came over from Iceland to study with me. He introduced me to the Scandinavian crime writers (in translation!) I find it fascinating how writers from the northern fringes of Europe do the dark side of people and places so well: from Robert Louis Stevenson to Ian Rankin and of course the Swede Henning Mankell. Indridason's book is an outstanding crime novel, but it deals with some deeply painful social issues in ways that made me weep. In my academic work I seldom get time to read a book from cover to cover unless I am reviewing it. With such a volume of scholarly literature appearing there sadly isn’t the time.

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

    RH: My wife and I travel as often as we can both in Scotland and overseas. For myself, I take a lot of exercise to keep my mind sharp: swimming, yoga and Tai Chi, which is not really a martial art so much as a sort of active meditation. I like working with my hands so I do the cooking (my wife has a demanding job as a university manager, so it suits us both) and I enjoy furniture restoration and upholstery. My passion is scuba diving, both off Scotland and around the world, because it is so blissfully absorbing.

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

    RH: For a book like this it is someone who is curious. To be more specific I guess there are two groups, with a representative sitting on each shoulder as I wrote... One is people from England, Wales and Ireland who find the Scots a bit of a puzzle and want to "understand the neighbours" -- as Jeremy Paxman put it in a very generous review of one of my earlier books. The other is those of Scottish descent: at a conservative estimate there are 20 million people around the globe who have Scottish ancestry, most of them living in Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve even seen a figure as high as 50 million. And then standing behind me there were the Scots themselves looking for background to researching their family tree or maybe trying to understand why Scottish devolution has worked so well.

    MT: What are you working on now Rab?

    RH: I have two academic topics that interest me. One is about the history of suicide in Britain from the end of the Middle Ages to the start of the Victorian era. Cheerful stuff you might say, but utterly fascinating. Suicide was treated as a crime and the way survivors dealt with it gives us all sorts of insights in religion, medicine and punishment. In England some suicides were buried with a stake through them; in Scotland some were dragged through the streets and hung on gibbets. This is unthinkable to us, so there must be a way into a completely different mind set here. I work best when I have more than one project underway because I can always shift topics if I get stale on one. So my other topic is something quite different: begging letters or petitions from tenants to their landlords in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As with all my work I want this to be truly British and Irish, with data from all parts of the Atlantic archipelago. I hope it will tell me what social relationships were like: which was the most oppressed peasantry in Britain and Ireland? After that, who knows? The books I did on mental disability in history still live with me because I feel there is much more to learn from the way "normal" people responded to those who they thought abnormal. Finally, I also do some journalism and I found writing theVery Short Introduction to Scotland so enjoyable that I'd like to do more books for general readers.

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

    RH: I'm lost in admiration for Martin Amis. His use of language is so strikingly original and he has continually expanded the scope of what the novel can do. Ian McEwan comes a close second for the intensity of his prose. His early short stories are beautifully crafted and Atonement is a near-perfect novel.

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

    RH: Read as many different literary styles as you can and see what they have to offer. That means tabloids as well as broadsheets, romance as well as thrillers, magazines as well as books. People tell me my prose is exceptionally clear and readable by the standards of most academics. I attribute that to having done Latin A-level at school, but you can also study it in evening classes now. Classical culture underlies much of modern literate media and understanding its rules has helped me to develop my style.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    RH: When I told one of my friends I had been asked to do this for the Book Depository he said: "Wow Rab: you get to play some great gigs." He was right: thanks for the opportunity!

  • Sue Guiney

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    A New Yorker by birth, Sue Guiney has lived in London for nearly twenty years where she writes and teaches poetry, fiction and plays. She has published widely throughout the UK and the US and her poetry play, Dreams of May, was published by bluechrome and premiered in London’s Pentameters Theatre. Tangled Roots is Sue’s first novel.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the initial idea for Tangled Roots?

    Sue Guiney: Tangled Roots had a very organic development. It actually began as a single short story in the voice of one specific character – a feisty little old lady from Brooklyn. After I wrote that story, I wrote another in the same voice and then another until I thought I had a collection of connected short stories about a woman, Grace, talking about various episodes in her life. I eventually became convinced that this was, in fact, the onset of a novel. It was quite a surprise, to be honest, and it took me a while to start thinking of these “stories’ as “chapters.” I think that’s why the theme of the importance of story telling is still there lurking underneath it all, even though the novel went through many changes from that lurching beginning to what you will find today on your bookshelf.

    Actually, Tangled Roots is two novels joined into one. I completed the story of Grace, calling it “An Unlikely Guru,” and then immediately started to write what I had thought would be my second novel, a sequel about Grace’s son, John, now a rather messed-up adult trying to make sense of his life and his world. But about halfway through I realized that you couldn’t really understand John unless you knew Grace and that, in fact, these were two aspects of the same novel. And that novel is Tangled Roots.

    MT: How long did it take you to write your book? Is this about usual for you?

    SG: The frightening truth is that, because the book started as one thing and then turned into another and then another, I was writing it over a very long time – 9 years to be exact! I sincerely hope this is not usual for me (or I’ll run out of time to write all the novels that are brewing in my head). But I actually don’t think that will be the case. I can already see that my new novel is moving along at a much more reasonable rate.

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

    SG: Although I like to think of myself as pretty computer savvy – I certainly spend most of my life in front of the damned thing – I write the old fashioned way, with a pen and a notebook. The first draft of every chapter (or poem for that matter) is written with a special pen in a special “Black n’ Red” notebook. Then the first editing happens automatically as I transcribe the messy longhand scribblings into a neat and orderly computerized form, complete with correct spelling and punctuation. I’ll then, after a few days, print off what I typed, read the hard copy with my pen in my hand, make changes and then retype. With Tangled Roots I repeated that process sometimes up to 8 or 9 times with each chapter. Maybe that’s why it took so long! To be honest, writing Tangled Roots was really on-the-job training. But with my new book, I’m forging ahead after one or two read-throughs, knowing I’ll go back again after the whole thing is finished.

    MT: Before we talk about Tangled Roots, your last book was a poetry play -- tell us something about that?

    SG: I was working with a teacher when I started writing all those stories about Grace. And although I had always loved and studied poetry, and had written a bit here and there since childhood, she convinced me to start writing poetry more intensely while I was working on my prose. She told me that all good writing, no matter what form, should all be poetry anyway, and I’m convinced she’s right. So I began to write a great deal of poetry, getting some published, getting some rejections, and doing more and more readings. It became clear to me that quite often the poems that got the best response at a reading were not necessarily the ones to get published. So I began to think about the difference between reading and hearing a poem, and I started to look at my poetry as a whole with that question in mind – why are some poems more accessible heard rather than read? How are those experiences different? I then realized that I had been approaching my poetry very much in the same way as I approach my prose, ie via character. It is always character which interests me first, and so I came to realize that a certain group of my poems, when read together, could be seen as portraying the emotional journey of one specific character. Dreams of May grew out of that with the initial idea being that I would develop a cycle of poems which a person could experience visually and aurally, and then, by taking the text home with them, in the “usual” way by sitting quietly on their own and reading. The two very happy consequences of that was my entrée into writing for the theatre, which I am still doing today, and my introduction to bluechrome, who -- being just as quirky as I am -- agreed to publish the text. The play had its premiere in a two-week run in London’s Pentameters Theatre, and has since been performed at London’s Poetry Café, at various poetry readings and university classes, and will be featured in the “Polyverse Poetry Festival” to be held at Loughborough in July ’09. I should also mention that, thankfully, I am not the one to perform the piece. The wonderful English actress, Rosalind Cressy, has been the one to perform Dreams of May each time it has been produced, and she has very much made it her own.

    MT: Writing a novel must have been very different, then, to Dreams of May and to writing short stories -- what was the most difficult aspect of writing your novel? How did you overcome it?

    SG: It may sound strange, but for me the most difficult part of writing the novel was believing that that was, indeed, what I was doing. I had to be convinced that I had stumbled into that genre, and that the characters and themes actually warranted it. Once I believed that (1) I dared do it and (2) the piece required it, I just merrily rolled along. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.

    Having said that, it was difficult learning when I was avoiding writing something which really needed to be explored, ie something emotionally difficult either for me or the character. I would often think I had written about it, only to find I had only written a very compressed, shorthand stand-in for something that really needed a great deal more developing. Learning when I was doing that, and forcing myself to dig deeper and open up those more emotionally difficult episodes was quite hard. How did I overcome it? By distance, humility, and having a brutally forceful editor.

    MT: Your main character John is a forty-year old cosmologist and professor of theoretical physics. Are you fascinated by physics yourself? What did John's profession allow you to do and say as a writer?

    SG: I have always been fascinated by science, by the concepts, which always have seemed beyond me, but also by the people who devote themselves to thinking about those concepts. Scientists, and especially physicists, experience the world through numbers in the way that I experience it through words, and that is just amazing to me. So turning John into a physicist allowed me to read widely about the newest theories in the field, and to explore the ways in which religious and scientific imaginings overlap. I have always had trouble with “facts” – remembering them, believing in them. For example, while I was writing Tangled Roots, Pluto was proclaimed NOT to be a planet anymore. Now, I remember having to memorize the names and number of the planets in school. That was an early piece of the foundation of my education. And now all these yearslatyer, “they” are saying that that “fact” isn’t a fact anymore. And that happens all the time. I find it both infuriating and, somehow, encouraging at the same time. Now John had spent his life rejecting the unprovable theories of religion and God, and yet, he had spent his life examining the same ideas, just in a different way. Time, the past, the future, our place in the cosmos, is there more to us than what we see... writing about physics allowed me to explore all of that. It was great fun!

    MT: Your theme is a mother/son relationship -- are you writing "close to home" here!?

    SG: Ah—the eternal autobiography question. On the one hand, yes – I have two sons and the elder one was in the depths of adolescence while I was writing the bulk of the book. And I do believe that although the relationship between a mother and a son is perhaps the closest and most complex relationship one could have, I also have to admit that a mother can never really understand the effect her actions have on her son. Nor can a son ever really understand why a mother does the things she does. It is that inevitable disconnect that I was writing about. Thankfully, the lines of communication are more open between myself and my sons than were the case between Grace and John, but writing about something allows you to “live” the extreme “what if” of something without having to deal with the consequences.

    MT: Your novel is often poetic and impressionistic -- is style as important to you as content?

    SG: Yes, style is paramount. I touched upon that earlier, and although I also said earlier that I approach my writing through character first, the truth is that once the fuzzy outlines of a character are in my head, I breathe life into that character via language. I aim for poetry to be present in everything I write, but I define poetry rather loosely as finding ways to employ (or even exploit) the beauty of this language that we are lucky enough to be working in. I suppose I can say I try to write with my ears, as much as anything.

    MT: What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

    SG: To be honest, I’m not trying to teach anything with my book. I would hope, though, that a reader will feel as if he/she has experienced something true and genuine, that he/she has met characters that are understandable and “real,” and has been given the chance to think about things in a new or interesting way. If all of that can happen while the reader is also stopped in his tracks and forced to proclaim “wow, that was beautifully said,” then bingo!

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

    SG: Besides hanging out with family and friends and seeing as much theatre as I can, my main hobby is playing the violin. I’ve played since I was five and I still practice and perform with a wonderful semi-professional orchestra called the Kensington Philharmonic.

    Also, and very importantly, I am Artistic Director of a not-for-profit arts organization called CurvingRoad. We find and launch the careers of artists across all disciplines who have not necessarily taken traditional paths towards the development of their art. We try to be their first bit of luck. To that end, we are producing our first play, a new piece by a new playwright – and in London’s West End! – this autumn. Watch out for details to come!

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

    SG: I suppose my ideal reader is me – I can only write things that I myself would like to read and I suppose that means a novel full of real characters with depth, interesting ideas to explore, and language that is painstakingly written. But isn’t that everybody?

    MT: What are you working on now?

    SG: I am nearing the halfway mark of the first draft of a new novel set in modern-day Cambodia. I also have a full-length play in development which will be workshopped in September and, of course, poetry. Always poetry quietly pushing along in the background.

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

    SG: I always find this such a hard question because my favourite authors are not necessarily the ones I try to emulate or who I think are “the best.” But having said that, Grace Paley, the American short story writer, has been the greatest influence on me as a writer, and I DO believe she was the best of her generation. She never was comfortable writing novels, but her short stories teach you everything you would ever need to know about writing, and life for that matter.

    I also love Anthony Trollope. Reading one of his very many novels makes me feel like a little girl sitting by a fire being told a wonderful story by my favourite uncle. I try to allow myself that pleasure at least once a year.

    And there are two novels which I read as a rather introspective adolescent which remain incredibly influential: Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel and (dare I say) Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Both of those made me understand the beauty and power of literature, and gave me a pathological respect for literature while instilling in me a secret dream to one day follow in their footsteps (it took me over 30 years to let that secret out, though).

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

    SG: Yes, several!

    1. Don’t be afraid to say out loud to the world that you are a writer. A writer is someone who spends his/her time writing – not necessarily someone who is published. If you take your work seriously others eventually will, too. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.
    2. Set aside a time and, especially, a place that is just for you and your writing, even if it’s only your bed between the hours of 10 and 12.
    3. Read constantly – classics as well as contemporary, and don’t be afraid to decide that you don’t like something even if everyone else does, i.e. develop your own ear.
    4. Learn to love punctuation, take the rules deep into your heart – how else can you break the rules if you don’t know and respect them?

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    SG: Just thanks for asking all these questions and letting me ramble on about my answers. You know, during the process of trying to sell Tangled Roots, we were told by one publisher that people don’t read literary fiction any more and so more and more publishers were going to stop publishing it. I thought about putting my head in the oven at that point, but I’m happy to say that you and your readers are very much proving him wrong. Hallelujah!

  • Druin Burch

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Druin Burch, 34, studied Human Sciences at Oxford. After research in human and chimpanzee genetics, he studied medicine and has worked in hospitals across south east England. He teaches human evolution, physiology and ecology at Oxford, and writes for medical journals, the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian. This is his first book. He lives in the Cotswolds.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Digging Up The Dead?

    Druin Burch: I'd been interested in its main character – Astley Cooper – for some time. He is a huge figure in the life of John Keats, and in the Keats biographies you hear about Cooper as being both a charismatic man and an exceptionally famous surgeon. But in my life as a doctor I had never heard of him. These people who are so exceedingly famous in their day and then slip out of history hold an immediate fascination for me. I found a wonderful story in Elizabeth Gaskell's life of Bronte, with the Bronte sisters – who had no connections to Cooper or surgery – sitting and playing a game which involved them each picking out the three most famous people of their time. Cooper's name came ahead of Wellington's.

    MT: How long did it take you to write and research your book?

    DB: Hard to say. The research was spread out over several years, but not full time. The writing was fitted into periods of work in-between my own hospital work. In my head I think of it as having added up to about a year's full time work, but that's a wild guess.

    MT: Do you enjoy the research or were you impatient to get down to the actual writing?

    DB: I enjoyed both, but found it hard to swap between them. When I was reading I always wanted to keep going – to find one more journal or newspaper report, look in one more book or museum collection. Whenever I swapped over to the writing I found it incredibly frustrating if I got to a point where I needed to break off and look something up.

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

    DB: Always onto a computer – too much of an ingrained habit to break. I make notes in longhand, and then type them up afterwards, but again that's entirely a habit rather than a deliberate choice. I often wonder if my writing would be different if I changed these things – but I suspect I'll always find it too difficult to find out.

    MT: Your book is the story of Astley Cooper -- tell us a little about the man who became surgeon to the royal family and who taught Keats Druin.

    DB: He was a wild and handsome boy born into a conservative family in Norfolk. With a taste for adventure he found life as a surgical student dull at first, but then something about it absolutely fired up his imagination. It was very much combined for him with a passion for radical politics – which meant a belief in democracy. He went to Paris during the French Revolution, taking his pregnant wife with him, to study at the hospitals and the listen to the politicians. His life in England was a mix of radical politics, bodysnatching, horrific animal vivisection, even more horrific operations on fully alert patients, and ultimately an exceptional career as a revolutionary new sort of surgeon. After he died The Times declared him to have been the richest professional man to have ever lived – of any profession and across the whole of Europe.

    What really interested me ended up not being his worldly success, but the way in which such an appalling working environment – rotting corpses and screaming patients – could fire his passion to such a degree. He was absolutely in love with his work, and this was what Keats admired in him. There was a huge concern among the Romantic poets as to the meaning of beauty. They were not men interested in 'prettiness' – they were enraptured by the aesthetic qualities of what really mattered. So you get Hazlitt writing about how a fresh dissection of a human brain must hold as much beauty to a surgeon as flowers to an artist, and Keats comparing the effect he wanted his poetry to have on the human spirit with that of surgery on the body. Both Keats and Cooper were deeply attached to the idea that suffering, bodily or mental, was not to be avoided if it led on to things – a painful operation to an improved physical condition, or a painful experience to a mental one.

    MT: You are a physician -- how did this help you write your book?

    DB: It gave me a head start when it came to understanding the technical aspects, but it was most valuable for the emotional ones. I had enough experience of death and disease and physical horrors to set me off in pursuit of what it must have been like for people like Cooper and Keats. Throughout the book I use some of my own experiences to try and offer this to the reader. Contrasting the life of an eighteenth century surgeon with contemporary experiences of medicine really helped Cooper's life come vividly alive for me as a writer; hopefully it does the same for readers. It does seem to have been a part of the book that people have enjoyed. I was trying to make a dead man's life feel immediate, almost a bit novelistic.

    MT: Cooper set up an international network of bodysnatchers to facilitate his research -- did he have rob graves to do his work? do you forgive him!?

    DB: He was called the King of the Bodysnatchers. When Parliament was belatedly trying to work out how to solve the problem, Cooper was the first witness called. Surgeons needed to dissect in order to be competent, yet bodies were not really available legally. Cooper stepped before Parliament and told them how things were. Either we mangle the dead, he said, or we mangle the living – you choose. Then he added that the politicians really had no choice at all, and boasted that there was no-one alive whose body he could not obtain after their death if he chose. It was a pointed remark: don't assume that we only steal the bodies of the poor, he was telling them, and use that thought and your own self-interest to excuse yourselves from taking any action.

    I forgive him entirely for his bodysnatching; it was part of the way he was struggling to make the world a better place. Most of his colleagues treated the bodysnatchers they employed as dirt, the way society as a whole saw them. Cooper valued them, looking after them and their families in every way he could.

    I don't forgive him for many of his animal experiments. There were some that were useful, but he allowed himself to be brutalised by the abundant cruelties and horrors of his world, and got a little bit too used to causing pain.

    MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? Have you learned anything from them?

    DB: I've read most of the critics. A good review is an absolutely joy to read – one that praises but also does so in a way that makes you feel the book had gripped them and made them think. What could gladden your heart more? Occasionally reviews can ignore a book altogether, and be excuses for a reviewer to talk about something else entirely – these are difficult to take. I also had the genuine pleasure of one negative but deeply thoughtful review – the author felt the book failed because it was part tragedy, part comedy, part history and part memoir. Exactly the mix that it seems to me real lives are actually made of.

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

    Fester.

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

    DB: Not really. I tried writing something that gripped me as I wrote it. I've spent a lot of time teaching students who write weekly essays. They clearly expect to find writing the essays boring, and they produce boring work as a result. It hasn't occurred to most of them that their first duty is to make their work interesting to themselves – and when they do, it has a chance of being interesting to others as well.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    DB: Two things, one a novel. The other is the historical tale of how doctors have gradually abandoned the arrogance and complacency that were their mainstays for most of human history – the qualities that kept leeches in wide use for thousands of years, despite them helping to kill or harm most of the people they were applied to.

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

    DB: My favourite is whoever I'm enjoying most at the time – any good book should be your favourite for at least the period you're reading it, the classics are ones that stick with you long afterwards. I'm going through a Jane Austen period at the moment, something that happens to me every few years with what feels like increasing admiration and enjoyment on every occasion. My favourite books are those so gripping they seem by contrast to suck the life out of the days spent reading them. Recent ones have been mixed – beyond Austen they've included Anne Fadiman's essays, a book on a single bacterium (E. coli) by the American science writer Carl Zimmer called Microcosm, and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle.

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

    DB: Read a lot and work a lot. And pray that you're born one of those writers, like Jane Austen, to whom things seem to come naturally – rather than someone like Orwell who appeared to have to teach himself how to write very slowly and painfully.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    DB: Don't be put off Digging Up The Dead by a distaste for surgery, corpses, pain or science! These are some of the things that make the story of Astley Cooper's life surprisingly enthralling, just as they made him captivating to people like his student Keats.

  • Rhyll McMaster

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Rhyll McMaster has written six prize-winning poetry books. Her first novel, Feather Man, published in Australia in 2007, has won two major literary prizes and is short-listed for two more. It is published in the UK by Marion Boyars.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the initial idea for Feather Man?

    Rhyll McMaster: First, I’ve always wanted to write a novel in the first person voice – it’s such a strong stylistic method. Second, I’ve always wanted to write a book divided into sections like Monica Dickens’ Flowers On The Grass. Third, I have friends who are artists, so I wanted to write about the process of making art, and so I put it all together to try to write a dark romantic novel about relationships that would take the best from every wonderful novel I’ve ever read.

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

    RM: I wrote the first draft in three months, working from 8am to 2am most days. I wrote poetry before this, so keeping in place the long, looping line of the narrative that wavers around like a piece of Walt Disney animated music was all new to me. Then I showed it round to get comments, and finally sent it out to agents and publishers. That was in 2000 and it was published in 2007. It went through at least 13 drafts in that time, with one major structural change to the second half of the novel. A harrowing, but exciting period in my life.

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

    RM: I’ve had the idea of writing this novel since I was 20, so I suppose you could say that my poetry has been the workshop for the novel. And in fact I’ve re-used about twenty or so poem fragments in the novel. In essence there’s no difference between poetry and prose except for line length and, of course, dialogue and that narrative tone. I make lots of scrappy notes on bits of paper – things I read in the newspapers or see on TV often act as catalysts. So do plays and films. But once I get going I use the computer. I tend to edit as I go, chapter by chapter. I always read it out loud to hear what it sounds like, and I write it as if I am a movie camera watching the scene unfold.

    MT: Your main character Sooky tries to establish who she really is via her art. Are you as a writer doing the same when you write?

    RM: I’ve been writing and getting published since I was 16, so writing is unquestionably a huge part of my identity. But so is being a mother of three now adult children, and relationships with friends and partner. My ‘day jobs’ have included being a nurse in a burns unit, and a sheep farmer – on consideration, I may very well have multiple personalities, or, a bit like Sooky, my idea of myself might change on the spur of the moment.

    MT: You are also a poet – what do you like best about each form?

    RM: Poetry at its best is a snapshot of a moment through sharp imagery. The moment might be a physical or an emotional one. To use another analogy, a poem is also like a small painting, a still life... something caught and crystallized. But I have fallen in love with the narrative power of prose, the ability to take the journey cross country and double back on one’s tracks, or to make a myriad of stylistic marks, not just one.

    MT: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your novel? How did you overcome it?

     

    RM: At about draft 12 I had been rejected many times, so I reasoned something was wrong. I called in the help of a long-time friend, the novelist Rodney Hall, who has been published internationally. He told me that I had to make a structural adjustment – the second half of the novel didn’t gell. It was too surreal and had to be grounded in reality. He also told me to make Redmond, Sooky’s self-centred lover, more sympathetic. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was worth it, and saved the novel.

    MT: You are a winner of the Barbara Jefferis award. What did that mean to you personally? And what do you think of literary prizes in general?

     

    RM: I was short-listed for the Victorian State Premier’s Awards, and then I won the inaugural Barbara Jefferis Award, given for a novel by either a man or a woman that spoke about the status of women and girls in society and showed them in a positive light. I was delighted and honored to win this one, particularly as there were 53 entries. I’ve now gone on to win another award, the UTS Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing, also prestigious, and I’ve just been short-listed for the Australian Literary Society’s Gold Medal for an outstanding literary work, a prize that’s been running since 1928, and which once was won by the Nobel Prizewinner, Patrick White.

    I think awards are very important. Writers work in isolation for long periods, and often receive very little remuneration for their efforts. To be recognized by their peers and by government is a wonderful reward for hard work. Books keep our cultures rich and our empathy on high beam – surely a good thing for the planet.

    MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? Have you learned anything from them?

     

    RM: I’ve received very favourable reviews for Feather Man. I eagerly await the reviews. It gives me very good general feedback. And I have learnt a tremendous amount from them, because like a lot of writers, I suspect, I don’t really know what I’ve written about or what my themes might be. It takes the astute eye of the reviewer to draw back and show the overall picture. I’m still down there in the close stitching.

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

    RM: I muddle about in my life.

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

    RM: My ideal reader is someone a little bit like me; someone who wants to be transported to that magical, exaggerated world of the perfect novel, the one that never gets to The End; the one that takes you out of real life with all its exigencies.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    RM: I think I’ll try my hand at a film script. A producer friend told me that a film script is 98 pages of dialogue. Simple.

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

     

    RM: Some of my favourite writers are English or Anglo-Irish like Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Molly Keane, Iris Murdoch and Barbara Comyns. Australian novelists of enduring value are D’Arcy Niland and Ruth Park. I also admire Helen Garner. American novels I love are John Updike’s Couples and more recently, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But the top of my list would have to be Edith Wharton and Anne Tyler.

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

     

    RM: Read books.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    RM: This has been fun and a great opportunity to connect with readers. I love talking about books and writing.

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