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  • David Lodge

    Fri, 19 Jun 2009 04:15

    David Lodge is a novelist, critic and Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Birmingham University, where he taught for many years. His novels, which have been translated into some twenty-five languages, include Changing Places, Small World, Nice Work, Therapy and most recently Deaf Sentence. He has also written stage plays and screenplays.

    Mark Thwaite: Is Deaf Sentence based on your own experiences David?

    David Lodge: The portrayal of the central character's deafness is closely based on my own experience, and it is exceedingly unlikely that I would have thought of writing a novel about this condition if it I hadn't I suffered from it myself. From my late forties I was afflicted with gradually worsening high-frequency deafness, the most common form of hearing impairment, which makes it difficult to distinguish consonants, especially when there is a lot of background noise. The character of Desmond's father is also closely based on my own father who died in 1999. He was also deaf, as a result of old age, but wouldn't wear a hearing aid, so communication between us was often difficult.

    Mark Thwaite: Our hero, Desmond Bates, is a Retired Professor of Linguistics -- is Deaf Sentence still a kind of campus novel then?

    David Lodge: I have always tried to play variations on the classic campus novel -- having two campuses in different continents in Changing Places, for instance, and exploring the "global campus" in Small World. Deaf Sentence could be called a retirement campus novel, since the main character is retired, but misses the academic environment and the status he enjoyed in it, still hangs around his old university campus, and gets involved with a postgraduate student there. This element in his character is not autobiographical. I retired early to write full-time and have been very fully occupied ever since.

    Mark Thwaite: What makes the academic milieu such a wonderful productive subject area for you?

    David Lodge: I know it well, having spent 27 years of my adult life as a university teacher, and novelists tend to write about milieux they know intimately. It's changed a lot in that time, and those changes reflect changes in society at large which also figure in my campus novels: the emergence of feminism and the counter-culture in the late sixties/early seventies in Changing Places , for example, or the economic upheaval of Thatcherism in Britain in the 80s in Nice Work. The academic institution is a small world, a microcosm of society as a whole, in which themes like the operation of power, ambition, and sexual desire, can be studied in a comic and satiric rather than tragic manner. The fact that university staff are theoretically committed to the preservation of high culture, and the pursuit of truth, but are fallible human beings with ordinary human weaknesses and perhaps more than usual eccentricities, makes a good setting for comic and satirical writing.

    Mark Thwaite: Deaf Sentence is wonderfully funny -- is funny difficult? Are you funny in real life!?

    David Lodge: Yes, funny is hard work. So much humour depends on timing and the way in which information is channelled to the reader. Comedy of situation depends on surprising the reader with some absurd or incongruous action which is nevertheless logical, and this means you must both prepare for it and conceal it in advance. At the level of the sentence, humour depends on the choice and order of words. To write well you must always be good at anticipating the reaction of readers to your text, and this is particularly important in comedy.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this particular novel? How did you overcome it?

    David Lodge: There were two main problems. One was to provide a narrative element which put Desmond in some kind of jeopardy, because his deafness and his Dad's plight, although full of human interest, do not generate a great deal of suspense. I solved this problem (I think) through the character of Alex, the troubled and troubling young woman with whom Desmond gets involved. She is a wholly invented character. The second problem was to combine the comedy generated by Desmond's deafness with the serious exploration of the theme of mortality which is associated with it in the punning title of the novel. The novel modulates from a predominantly comic tone into an elegiac one as it approaches the end of the story. It is not for me to say how well I have managed it, but most readers seemed to feel it works.

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

    David Lodge: When I started writing novels more than fifty years ago I would write the whole thing out in longhand, and then type it up, revising as I went along. Later I would write a few pages at a time in longhand and then type them up. When I acquired a computer the longhand drafts became more and more sketchy, and most of the work was done on the computer. Now I write straight on to the computer and constantly print out pages which I edit by hand and then save in a revised form on the computer. Every page goes through multiple drafts in this way.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your books in general and this book in particular? Have you learned anything from them?

    David Lodge: I skim the reviews as they come out to get a sense of how the book is being received, and may read some carefully again later if I think they are interesting and based on a careful reading of the book. Every writer, even if they are considered successful, will inevitably get some negative reviews some of the time, and nobody enjoys reading them. I don't publish a novel unless I am satisfied with it, so a dismissive review is wounding. The reviews of Deaf Sentence were largely very favourable -- the best overall I've received for some time -- but the one really nasty one still niggles. What I learn from reviews is the variety of responses a novel will produce from different readers -- even those who like it very much. You have to remember that no reviewer is completely objective. They have their own agendas and reputations to uphold. On the whole I avoid reading academic criticism of my novels because, even when it is favourable, it is usually designed to display the critic's professional mastery over the text and this is slightly unsettling to a writer -- though I do it myself when I write criticism!

    Mark Thwaite: Are you fully recovered from your Year of Henry James!?

    David Lodge: I'm not sure I will ever fully recover. I remain convinced that Author! Author! is one of my best novels and would have been much more successful if a very good novel about the same subject hadn't been published six months earlier. However I did feel finally able to read Colm Toibin's The Master at the end of last year without pain and indeed with pleasure, though I was chiefly struck by how totally different our characterizations of Henry James are.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    David Lodge: I think about how the work in progress is going, and I read a lot, of course. If you mean what non-literary things do I do, I play tennis about once a week all through the year, go for a sauna and swim with about the same regularity, watch TV (football, documentaries, good drama), take turns in cooking the evening meal for myself and my wife, eat out about once a week, go to art galleries, the cinema and the theatre (though deafness has impaired those last two pleasures to some extent). That's about it.

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

    David Lodge: One's ideal reader is intelligent, alert, open-minded but demanding, and equipped with what Hemingway called "a built-in shit-detector." He/she does not actually exist. In a way you try to be that reader when you read and re-read your own work in progress, and not to kid yourself if something isn't quite right. That's a rather different matter from one's "readership" which in my case, I'm aware, is probably well-educated, well-read, maybe Catholic, and getting more and more senior in years, like myself. I'm lucky that I have a large international audience through translation, but it's impossible and would be dangerous to think of them when you are writing. You have to write for your own language community.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now David?

    David Lodge: I'm writing a novel, but I never I never talk about work in progress until it's completed or fairly near completion.

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

    David Lodge: James Joyce and Ulysses is the short answer. Other favourite books: Jane Austen's Emma, Dickens' Bleak House, Henry James's The Ambassadors, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim.

    Mark Thwaite: Favourite quote?

    David Lodge: "Ars longa, vita brevis." ("Art takes a long time, life is short." Attributed to Seneca)

    Mark Thwaite: Any tips for the aspiring writer?

    David Lodge: Read a lot. Keep a notebook -- a diary may be too time-consuming. Try to read your own work as if you didn't write it, and ask yourself how it would affect you in that persona.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    David Lodge: I think that's enough to be going on with. Thanks for your interest.

  • Nigel Warburton

    Wed, 17 Jun 2009 06:24

    Nigel Warburton is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University and author of numerous books including the bestselling Philosophy: The Basics. He is the interviewer for the popular podcast series Philosophy Bites and his most recent title is Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction.

    Mark Thwaite: What made you want to write about Free Speech Nigel?

    Nigel Warburton: I was perplexed by the various reactions to the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and wanted to clarify exactly where I stood on the value of free speech in general. I'd been interested in questions of tolerance and its limits before that, but it was the furore around these cartoons that gave me the initial impulse to write. Once I began researching the book I was amazed at how few good books had been written about Free Speech, one of the key public issues of our day.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write and research Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction?

    Nigel Warburton: It probably took me about a year and a half on and off to write. Just because it's very short (and my book is one of the shortest in the series) it doesn't follow that writing it took less time than a long book. I have in fact written much longer books in less time.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a screen? Straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Nigel Warburton: I generally sketch structures on the back of an envelope, sometimes begin writing by hand, but usually once I get going I type directly onto a laptop. I've also been experimenting with dictation software when I get bored of typing, but it can introduce surreal typos. I write quite quickly and try to make sure that I produce at least a thousand words a day when I've got going with a project. But I don't write every day. Some days I just procrastinate -- this may or may not be part of the writing process. I'm still not sure. I have an office at the end of the garden where I sometimes write, but also do it in cafes, on the train, in libraries and on the kitchen table. Sometimes I put music on, usually classical; sometimes not. The background hubub of a cafe seems to help concentration.

    Once I've got a section written, I print it out, carry it around with me, scribble on it, then key in the changes. Then I usually repeat this process. I tend to write under-length and expand from within rather than make a lot of cuts. But sometimes, at a later stage I will cut whole sections and rewrite. If possible I get other people to read a later draft and make changes accordingly. Coming back to a final draft after a gap of a few weeks or more is great as then I can scarcely remember what I wrote, and it is like reading someone else's work. When the proofs come, like most writers, I spot numerous mistakes I've made. I never feel completely happy with what I've written.

    Mark Thwaite: The VSIs are very compact -- how did you go about squeezing all your research into such a small frame? Was there anything important you had to leave out!?

    Nigel Warburton: Writing a VSI is like writing a haiku -- a good discipline. I concentrated on John Stuart Mill's arguments about Free Speech and their relevance for today. I had originally intended to discuss other writers such as John Millton and look at communitarian critiques of liberal thinking, but to do so would have been to lose some of the book's focus. Had I gone into some of the more complex philosophical arguments I would have betrayed the spirit of this excellent series. Every section of the book could easily be expanded into a book in itself. This is a very rich and controversial topic. I set myself the task of giving a clear exposition of some of the main arguments in a range of areas -- both familiar, such as religious offence, and less familiar such as copyright - rather than a comprehensive coverage of the history of thought about free speech. So in a sense I didn't squeeze all my research in, rather made decisions to leave some aspects of it out.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you learned anything from their responses to your book?

    Nigel Warburton: The Internet makes it very easy to find reviews. I usually read these. So far the reviews have been good. One of the reviewers thought I got caught up a bit in my discussion of pornography -- I agree. This is an incredibly difficult issue to get clear about and I don't know of any thinker who has dealt with the free speech issues that arise from it adequately. But I thought it was better to address the issue rather than omit all discussion.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction? How did you overcome it?

    Nigel Warburton: Free Speech is such a contentious issue. I wanted to give a reasoned personal angle while at the same time providing space for readers to disagree with me; I also tried to provide an overview of some of the main arguments and topics and to include a range of real life examples. To do all of these things at once is a kind of juggling act. I was keen to keep the book very short because I thought that would increase the chances of people reading it from cover to cover, perhaps even in a single sitting. I'm not sure I did completely overcome the difficulty of doing all these things at once, but I do know I managed to keep the book short. My method was ruthless editing.

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

    Nigel Warburton: My ideal reader is someone who is genuinely puzzled about free speech and the issues it raises. I hope I've written in such a way that this reader would have some issues clarified and would be stimulated to further thought (and possibly reading) on the topic. I didn't imagine a person of a particular age, but I hope the book is accessible to anyone from about 16 years upwards.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Nigel Warburton: I'm finishing a Philosophy textbook, part way through writing a history of philosophy for children, and anticipating writing another VSI -- this one on Aesthetics. With David Edmonds I'm also co-editing a book based on our podcast series Philosophy Bites: that will be published by OUP in 2010.

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

    Nigel Warburton: I'm quite eclectic in my tastes. I love Elmore Leonard as a writer. But I also love David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and some of Kafka's short stories. I'm more drawn to the writing style of Hemingway than Proust.

    Mark Thwaite: Favourite quote?

    Mark Thwaite: I love the accidental wisdom of Yogi Berra's "When you come to a fork in the road, take it" which was his advice when giving directions how to get to his house, but seems more profound than that.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?

    Nigel Warburton: Read George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language and take his advice about how to write clearly. If you want to improve your writing style, try reading what you have written out loud. Once you've got going with a book, aim for about a thousand words a day and don't develop fussy habits about the place and time that you work. Learning to type with the correct fingers speeds things up.

    Once you've published a book, make sure you register with PLR (Public Lending Right) and the ALCS (Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society) as these organizations collect and distribute money for library and secondary uses (such as photocopying and scanning) -- you might be pleasantly surprised by how much money comes by these routes. I'd also recommend joining the Society of Authors not least because they offer a superb service checking through publishers' contracts.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Nigel Warburton: I have a weblog at vsi-free-speech.com where I've put links to reviews, podcasts, articles and other material about free speech (including a two minute video of me talking about the book).

  • Steve Toltz

    Fri, 12 Jun 2009 02:31

    Steve Toltz was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived in Montreal, Vancouver, Barcelona and Paris, working primarily as a screenwriter, but also doing stints as a private investigator and an English teacher. A Fraction of the Whole is his first book.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for A Fraction of the Whole?

    Steve Toltz: I was interested in exploring those characters in Australian society -- usually white-collar criminals -- who find themselves despised by 20 million people, crucified in the media and whose purpose seems to be to unify the nation in hatred. I was wondering how it must be for their family, specifically their children, and how they survive it.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you set out to deliberately write a comic novel, or did you find it becoming funny along the way? Are you funny in real life!?

    Steve Toltz: Whether or not I'm funny in real life is not for me to say. For what it's worth, I often hear friends and family laughing when I open my mouth, but that could be for any number of reasons.

    I didn't set out to write a comic novel, the humour sort of just comes out in the prose. If anything I have to pull it back often so as the reader can continue to believe in the characters.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book?

    Steve Toltz: Waiting until my abilities caught up to my ambition.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write A Fraction of the Whole?

    Steve Toltz: Five years.

    Mark Thwaite: Martin Dean, the father in your book, is a philosopher, the kind who forces Nietzsche and the letters of Van Gogh on his child. Based on anyone you know!?

    Steve Toltz: That's between me and a team of psychologists.

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

    Steve Toltz: I write longhand in two hour blocks, and my goal each day is to try and fit as many two hour blocks in a day as possible. At night, if I'm disciplined, I type up everything I've written during the day. If I'm undisciplined, which is more often than not, the hand-written notes accumulate, and then I have to set aside whole days just to transcribe them onto the computer. Occasionally, my handwriting is illegible and I have to take a guess at what I was trying to say.

    Mark Thwaite: Your book has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- how does that feel?

    Steve Toltz: I feel like the anesthetic of shock is just starting to wear off and what's left is a combination of pleasure, excitement, relief and nervousness.

    Mark Thwaite: What is your general opinion of literary prizes? Have they become too important? Are there too many of them?

    Steve Toltz: Despite being a published writer, I don't really consider myself in the publishing industry, or if I am, it's such a recent development in my life I haven't yet had time to form strong opinions about what goes on inside it. I have no idea if the prizes are given too much importance, though I think it's fantastic to have some way of highlighting certain books. I don't believe you can have too many prizes as long as the outcomes are diverse. Unlike other creative arts, such as film, where there might only be two or three great films a year in a very good year, there are so many great writers out there, and so many wonderful books, I would like as many of them as possible to be rewarded and pushed into the public awareness.

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

    Steve Toltz: When I was first published I was certain I wouldn't read the reviews. But I soon found they were impossible to ignore because if they're positive my publishers tell me about them, and if they're negative, my friends tell me about them. Generally though, they've been mostly positive -- with a few very negative ones thrown in. I do feel I have learned from them, but more about the reviewers than about my writing. As Oscar Wilde said: Criticism is the highest form of autobiography.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Steve Toltz: Read, play guitar, walk, see movies, drink...

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

    Steve Toltz: If there was an ideal reader, it would be someone who adores my strengths and is oblivious to my weaknesses. Generally, I write the type of stories that I would like to read. There's not even a faceless person peering over my shoulder. It's just me.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Steve?

    Steve Toltz: I'm working on a second novel, although that's difficult while traveling and living out of a suitcase -- so I'm also writing poetry, which is a form quite suited to suitcases.

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

    Steve Toltz: My favourite writers are Knut Hamsun, Dostoyevsky, E.M. Cioran, Henry Miller, Raymond Chandler, Roberto Bolano, Celine, Thomas Bernhard, and my favourite books are those written by the above, although some others, not by my favorite authors are: Sherwood Anderson's Winsberg, Ohio, Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, Blaise Cendrars Moravagine...

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

    Steve Toltz: If there's one tip that covers so many other tips is the one from Hemingway -- what you need more than anything is a sturdy, in-built sh*t detector.

  • Stuart Neville

    Thu, 11 Jun 2009 02:47

    Stuart Neville has been a musician, a composer, a teacher, a salesman, a film extra, a baker and a hand double for a well-known Irish comedian, but is currently a partner in a successful multimedia design business in the wilds of Northern Ireland. His novel The Twelve is a magnificent debut thriller which is being billed as one of the best first novels in years.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing The Twelve?

    Stuart Neville: I woke up early one Sunday morning with an image in my head: a man drinking in a bar, surrounded by the ghosts of all the people he's killed. I immediately reached for my little mobile phone-cum-PDA which has a word processor built in and started writing a short story. I finished it that day, but over the following weeks the protagonist wouldn't leave me alone. I wanted to know what happened to him next, and it kept nagging at me until I really had no choice but to turn it into a novel.

    Mark Thwaite: Are you a fan of thrillers and is this why you set out to write a thriller yourself, or was genre never something you had in your mind when you began?

    Stuart Neville: I've always been a fan of thrillers and horror, and there's a grey area between the two where writers like Thomas Harris and John Connolly thrive. I knew The Twelve was somewhere in the same area as I wrote it, but that didn't influence me in any specific way. I didn't consciously write to a genre. I think you have to write without those restrictions and let the story be what it is organically. You can always push it one direction or another in revisions.

    Mark Thwaite: Your book tells its story against the backdrop of Nothern Ireland's recent violent past -- do the Troubles haunt you as they do your protagonists?

    Stuart Neville: I was born within a few days of Bloody Sunday, so the Troubles were the normal state of affairs for me, and anyone of my generation. But you get used to peace very quickly. I think I'd be shocked to my core if I saw soldiers on the streets tomorrow, but it's not much more than a decade since it was commonplace. My nephew just started driving in the last year or so, and he'd be astounded if he was ever stopped at a checkpoint and had his car searched, yet within his lifetime it was an almost every day occurrence. I was lucky to never be directly affected by the Troubles, I never lost anyone close to me, so I don't have those kinds of emotional scars to deal with. Many people do, though, and for their sake we shouldn't take peace for granted.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you think post-conflict Northern Ireland is struggling with its past or do you think it is already beginning to forget those dark times?

    Stuart Neville: We're starting to look back on past events in a more objective way. As a society, we have to move away from the idea of the Troubles being something the 'Other Side' did to us. All factions need to stop pointing the finger, looking for blame, and start looking inward. All of us, from whichever side of the divide, are going to have to face up to some uncomfortable truths that we were perhaps blinkered to in the past. I believe fiction will be the driving force in this, whether on page or on screen. The most interesting fiction about any conflict doesn't come until it's over. Take Vietnam or World War II, for instance. The best stories about those wars didn't appear until years later. The next decade will be a very interesting time for writing from this part of the world.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you do any particular research before you began writing your novel?

    Stuart Neville: During the writing I had to research different types of weapons and how they work, like how to chamber a round in a Walther P99, or the magazine capacity of a Glock 23, or the wound ballistics of a nine-millimetre bullet. I kept hoping the authorities weren't keeping an eye on what I was searching the web for. I might have looked a little suspicious!

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your debut? How did you overcome it?

    Stuart Neville: Mostly, it was just keeping my head down until it was done. I can't say the first draft was a difficult process because it was so fast, it almost seemed to write itself, but the subsequent revisions were more of a challenge. My agent once told me the true mark of a writer's talent is how much the work improves between drafts, and I think he's right. The revisions are where the graft is.

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

    Stuart Neville: I could never write longhand because my handwriting is so terrible. I'd never be able to read it back. Everything is on computer. To be honest, I don't know how writers managed in the past even with typewriters! I usually write quickly, but revise each sentence as I go along, so I'd be lost without that backspace key. When I've completed a first draft of anything, I usually give it a quick polish, kind of like a draft 1.1 then I give it to one or more of my critique partners. I'm very lucky in that I've got a few people who are very talented writers with sharp eyes to call on, and I value their perspective greatly. When I get their notes back I happily start hacking the writing to pieces and putting it back together again.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you know how The Twelve would end when you began writing it, or was writing a voyage of discovery for you?

    Stuart Neville: I need an ending before I can start in earnest on anything, whether it's a short story or something longer. As soon as I decided to turn the short story The Twelve began as into a novel, I knew what the last few words would be. Personally, I need points of departure and destination, and then it's a matter of joining the two up. How I do that is usually a matter of improvisation, flying by the seat of my pants. I studied music at university, and a large part of that was jazz improvisation. One of the basic principles when improvising music is that you can go as far outside the bounds of the piece as you want, just so long as you can bring it back in again. I view writing a story in much the same way; you can push the plot in any direction you like, disorientate yourself and the reader along the way, confound all expectations, so long as you can bring it home. Robert KcKee, the screenwriting guru, talks about a story having a 'spine'. I fully subscribe to that point of view, and it was a huge breakthrough for me when I really grasped the idea. For me, the story must have a head and a tail, and a spine to join the two. How you put flesh on the spine is where the discovery happens.

    Mark Thwaite: You have been a musician, a composer, a teacher, a salesman, a film extra and a baker. Which was best!?

    Stuart Neville: Musician, of course! I took up guitar as a teenager and I fully intended on becoming a rock star, but somehow that didn't quite work out. I was gigging and teaching up until quite recently, but the writing has taken over now. I always have a guitar to hand when I'm at my computer, though. I tend to noodle to help me think. In fact, I think the brains of musicians and writers are wired in a very similar way. It's a combination of the mechanical and the creative.

    The worst was being a film extra. I've had a little experience of film sets in a musical capacity, and a little on screen, and I can tell you there is nothing more miserable than hanging around for hours waiting for something to happen. Actors deserve every penny they get.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Stuart Neville: I've been a partner in a multimedia business, mostly making websites, for ten years now. Whatever happens with my writing career, I'll always have some involvement with the business because I helped build it from scratch. I could never walk away from it.

    Apart from music, my other big passion is cinema. I have a stupidly large DVD collection, and I spend an unhealthy amount of time watching movies. It's been with me since I was a kid, and is largely responsible for my love of books. The picture house in my home town closed when I was small. We didn't have a car or a VCR, so the only way I could experience the movies of the time was through novelisations. That's why books and movies have always been interrelated for me. They're just different shades of storytelling. To this day I still collect movie novelisations, and I can't pass a charity shop without checking their shelves for a little gem. They're a nice reminder of a kind of book that has all but died out since home cinema became popular.

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

    Stuart Neville: I think if you deliberately write to an audience, you're onto a loser before you start. That's not an excuse to be self-indulgent or wilfully obtuse, but you can't expect to write well if you're constantly second-guessing yourself. Besides, who's to say what the audience is? It's constantly shifting. I think the general public is underestimated far too often. There's been a little debate online recently about how the fiction market seems to be skewed towards women. Where are the books for men? The wisdom of the industry is that men don't read as much as women, but is that because men are more interested in beer and scratching their arses, or could it be because the industry isn't producing the kind of books they want to read? In that sense, I'm my own ideal reader. There's a vast expanse between the extremes of brainless commercial techno-thrillers and the kind of middle-class navel-gazing that blights so much literary fiction. I suppose if I'm writing to an audience, it's somewhere in that rift.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Stuart?

    Stuart Neville: I'm writing the sequel to The Twelve, which has a working title, but I'm keeping that to myself for now. It features a new protagonist, and some characters from the first book will return. It's proving to be a slower process this time around. The sequel has a less linear plot, more intricate, with more characters to keep track of. It'll be a longer book, too.

    I'm also turning out the odd short here and there. I've contributed one called Queen of the Hill to an anthology that'll be published in 2010 by Morrigan Books. It's a collection of stories that interpret Irish myths and legends in modern crime fiction scenarios, and the contributors include Ken Bruen, Brian McGilloway, Arlene Hunt and Adrian McKinty. It's provisionally titled Myths and Mobsters, and it looks like it'll be a really interesting book.

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

    Stuart Neville: My favourite author is James Ellroy. He's the best crime writer alive today, and possibly of all time. For my money, no one else can balance plotting, style and emotional weight like him. A lot of writers cite The Cold Six Thousand as their favourite Ellroy book, but for me it's American Tabloid. It just completely blew me away when I first read it, and I didn't think it would be possible, but I enjoyed it even more when I reread it last year. If you're new to Ellroy, I'd suggest starting with his breakout novel, The Black Dahlia, where he really hit his stride, or perhaps one of the L.A. Quartet. The later books can be a little overwhelming, but reward the effort tenfold.

    There are a few books I've read once every year or two since I was a teenager. They include Marathon Man by William Goldman, Thomas Harris's Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, and Fletch by Gregory Macdonald. It's a very different book, but I also love The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.

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

    Stuart Neville: Give and receive critique, whether from a writing group, or one of the many online communities. The ability to look at your own work objectively is vital for when you deal with an agent or editor.

    Take advantage of all the resources available online, including the agent and editor blogs that have cropped up in recent years. You can learn a huge amount about how the industry works, and what's expected of you, so you'll have a much smoother ride if you're lucky enough to make it over the transom.

    Lastly, don't give up, and don't take rejection personally. It's all about an agent or editor making that gut-level connection with your writing, an X-factor if you like, so if a rejection slip says "not right for me" then that's exactly what it means. It's not a secret code for "this is rubbish!"

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Stuart Neville: Keep buying books! The world economy is in a bad way, but we shouldn't lose sight of the really valuable things. Books, whether highbrow or lowbrow, whether on paper or on an E-reader, are what made everything we have today possible.

  • Gabrielle Palmer

    Thu, 04 Jun 2009 08:26

    Gabrielle Palmer is a nutritionist and a campaigner. She was a breastfeeding counsellor in the 1970s and helped establish the UK pressure group Baby Milk Action. In the early 1980s she lived and worked as a volunteer in Mozambique. She has written, taught and campaigned on infant feeding issues, particularly the unethical marketing of baby foods. In the 1990s she co-directed the International Breastfeeding: Practice and Policy course at The Institute of Child Health in London until she went to live in China for two years. She has worked independently for various health and development agencies, including serving as HIV and Infant Feeding Officer for UNICEF New York. She recently worked at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she had originally studied nutrition.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing The Politics of Breastfeeding?

    Gabrielle Palmer: In 1986, birth and breastfeeding guru Sheila Kitzinger phoned me up and asked me to write a book on The Politics of Breastfeeding for a book series called, 'Issues in Women's Health' for Pandora Press (owned by Routledge at the time) Sheila was series editor and she knew about my work as a campaigner against the unethical promotion of baby milk. I had with others, established the pressure group, Baby Milk Action and Sheila was a patron. The book and the title was her idea. I said yes.

    Mark Thwaite: You contend that "breastfeeding is not best, it's normal" -- can you explain this a little more?

    Gabrielle Palmer: It is not just me who says this. Other researchers and writers have also pointed this out. I dislike the phrase 'breast is best'. It is such a platitude. It's like saying 'walking is the best way of getting from your desk to the other side of the room' or 'kidneys are best for filtering waste products from your body'. Not breastfeeding is the odd, unusual practice and 99% of human beings who have walked this earth were breastfed. It is only comparatively recently that human beings have been able to survive artificial feeding. In 19th century Dublin the orphanage was closed when 99.6% of babies died because they were not breastfed. Breastfeeding has been the normal way of feeding babies since humans first evolved. In many societies the concept of 'not being able to breastfeed' does not exist'. Today in our very odd society (which may be on the brink of collapse) we have made breastfeeding so difficult that vast numbers of women believe they cannot do it or don't want to because they have heard how difficult it is. But still today most babies are at risk of death if they are not breastfed; 80% of humans live in poverty and artificial feeding kills babies who live in the normal conditions of most people. Of course like any biological process, there are occasional 'failures'. There are also some people who cannot walk, but we don't think it is normal for the majority of healthy people to use wheelchairs or crutches... yet. In the UK the majority of babies are not breastfed for more than about six weeks and we think infant infections are normal. Antibiotic effectiveness is fast declining and we cannot be complacent about this. Babies die all over the world from infections that breastfeeding could prevent. Just read my book for a fuller explanation.

    Mark Thwaite: Your book is subtitled "when breasts are bad for business" -- is baby-milk formula simply a con? Are there no women who need it?

    Gabrielle Palmer: Artificial milk (or infant formula as many people call it) for babies is not a con. It is a necessary product. There are always orphans. Also there are women who have had mastectomies due to breast cancer or HIV women who decide to avoid breastfeeding. The common problems that lead so many women to abandon breastfeeding are mostly due to incompetent health professionals and misinformation from the companies and the culture. Also there are women who do not want to breastfeed. Every woman has the right not to breastfeed, but she also has the right to be informed about the risks to her baby. She must know that her baby will need more medical treatment and she must be able to afford excellent healthcare or live in a country where it is free. Ideally when babies are not breastfed by their mothers they would be wet-nursed or fed with donated human milk but that is not possible at the moment. What is a con is the baby food product marketing. There is far too little scrutiny and inspection of the milks and the bottles and teats. Many milks do not contain the proportions of ingredients they claim on the tin and they can contain lethal bacteria within the powdered milk. The preservatives used in them have not been proven safe for babies and they are not named in the labels. Our UK government (and many others) do nothing to check their safety and many adult foods are inspected far more regularly and carefully. We know that up to 14% of tins can contain enterobacter sakazakii, a heat resistant pathogen that causes a brain-damaging or fatal meningitis. Babies have died from this but it is rarely publicised. Bottles and teats do not have to conform to rigorous standards and many are manufactured from suspect materials. Parents and carers are not told these facts on the labels or in information about the products. The WHO Code of Marketing (which our government has agreed to) restricts the marketing of milks and bottles. It states that governments have the responsibility for providing impartial information.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write and research your book Gabrielle?

    Gabrielle Palmer: I published the first edition in 1988, it took two years to write, the second edition (1993) took six months and this third edition about four years. But this is because I have had to earn my living and do other voluntary work at the same time.

    Mark Thwaite: This is a substantially revised version of your book -- what has changed since the last edition?

    Gabrielle Palmer: I have developed ideas from the first edition with new detail about ecology and economics. I have now written a chapter about infant feeding in disasters such as earthquakes and one about HIV/AIDS. These are important topics because many people do not understand how vital breastfeeding is in the worst of circumstances. It truly is a matter of life and death. Many western people are unaware that if a woman stops breastfeeding in an emergency, she is likely to get pregnant and may die as a result. I have also included sections about the effects of childbirth both in the rich and the poor world. I feel very passionate about the latter. Every day 1370 women die from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every four hours, yet the media rarely report this daily tragedy. Dead women cannot breastfeed. Politicians never make speeches about these preventable deaths. Globally the contraceptive effect of breastfeeding prevents more pregnancies than all other forms of modern contraception. Women, toddlers and babies are more likely to die if pregnancies are closely spaced. When companies promote their milks and foods they may not only cause a baby's death but his mother's. All these topics have been expanded in this new edition.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing The Politics of Breastfeeding? How did you overcome it?

    Gabrielle Palmer: The most difficult part of writing the book is that I would get extremely depressed about the state of the world and this would paralyse me and make me unable to work. I would overcome it by meeting, talking to or just thinking about friends I have made around the world. I have always been bowled over by the resilient cheerfulness and optimism of people in poor countries who work in such difficult conditions. Last year I visited friends in Guatemala, the poorest country in Latin America. I stayed in the mud-floored hut of an illiterate woman, mother of eight healthy children, all born at home with only her husband's help. She had been chosen by her community to do a government training to be a birth attendant. She was so knowledgeable and so responsible. By our terms she would be viewed as desperately poor but her tranquillity, wisdom and good relations with her community were greater than anything I have come across in my own country. She owns nothing but she enjoys her life and gets satisfaction from her work and her family. I have written about her in my book. I have known people from Nigeria, South Africa, Bangladesh and many other places who remain positive in the worst of situations, never give up and really enjoy the small pleasures of life. These friends give me hope, the most valuable gift of all.

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

    Gabrielle Palmer: On a computer with loads of errors (I cannot touch type). I write far too much and spend more time editing and cutting than actually writing. I sometimes wish I did write by hand because when I do the ideas flow more coherently (something to do with the brain working differently with the hand movements of writing). However I would then have to copy type it out which would be a nightmare.

    Mark Thwaite: In what way do hospital practices sabotage breastfeeding?

    Gabrielle Palmer: It's all in the book. Or look up UNICEF Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) on the internet. Despite BFHI making some improvements, hospital practices still make breastfeeding difficult. Mothers and babies need unhurried, uninterrupted skin contact after birth. This not only affects breastfeeding hormones but changes the digestive hormones of both mother and baby. Many of the drugs used in childbirth damage babies' suckling reflexes so they don't feed well at first and mothers lose confidence. Babies are still removed from their mothers and even put in nurseries in some countries. Many hospitals forbid mothers and babies to bed share. Any separation impedes the 'getting to know each other' phase which is vital for easy breastfeeding. Many health staff are still disgracefully unskilled at knowing how to help a mother get her baby attached (important to prevent sore nipples) and to be emotionally supportive. The noisy, stressed, over-lit atmosphere makes mothers tense and anxious. Hospitals still give unnecessary feeds of glucose water or infant formula which stop the baby stimulating the right amount of breastmilk. The baby needs to suckle immediately after birth when her reflexes are at their strongest and suckle freely whenever she wants. Feeding within the first hour would prevent thousands of infant deaths in poor countries. This post-natal period is called the 'calibration' phase when a baby's suckling communicates to her mother's body how much breastmilk she is going to need long-term. If given other fluids, the baby loses thirst and appetite and is reluctant to suckle so the mother's body gets the message it does not need to make much breastmilk. Bad hospital practices cause poor breastmilk supply. Also many hospitals (especially in the USA) still promote infant formula and hand out free samples of these products. Hospital maternity wards have been major saboteurs of breastfeeding. During the 20th century, across the world, the more hospital births increased, the more breastfeeding declined. It is a great shame on the medical, nursing and midwifery professions that this is still going on. Many health professionals and academics have sold out to the baby food companies. These companies exploit inadequate health worker training and sell more products as a result. Profit is more desirable than infant health.

    Mark Thwaite: Why, as a society, have we become so phobic of women breastfeeding in public?

    Gabrielle Palmer: I don't think we are quite so phobic in Europe; it is the USA which has the big terror of naked nipples and bare breasts. It's quite amusing and astonishing how so many US citizens are scared, yet obsessed by breasts. It always baffles me that so many US women have cosmetic surgery to make their breasts all look alike and conform to some ridiculous norm, yet they don't even go topless on beaches to show off their expensive artificial breasts. What's the point? I think some of this nipple and breast phobia comes from general misogyny. Remember it is not even 100 years since British women got the vote and some in Switzerland only did in the 1990s. Women could not even get degrees from Cambridge University until 1948. Equal employment and anti-discrimination laws are relatively new even in the most advanced countries. Women are still only grudgingly allowed to be full members of society. The condition is that you can join the male power structures on condition you are not too female. I sense that men do not want to be reminded of how multi-talented women are. I also think many women are very uptight about their breasts and had bad breastfeeding experiences (as most 20th century women did) so any public breastfeeding reminds them of a negative experience. In the USA there is plain old Puritanism and fear of the body. They may not kill witches in Salem anymore but there is still fear of the female. Breastfeeding stayed so hidden that people forgot how to do it. It was also quashed by the WIC programme that stopped poor women breastfeeding in the 1960s by providing free infant formula. There are loads of other different reasons but I certainly know that where public breastfeeding is accepted no one bats an eyelid and then more people find it easier. This might be Scandinavia or Swaziland. This also includes countries where women have to be much more modest and even veiled. There are societies where public breastfeeding is taken for granted yet a woman could not go bare-headed. Culture is so fickle that what is shocking today is totally acceptable tomorrow. Women wearing trousers, drinking or eating in the street, not wearing a hat: these were all shocking to most British people when I was a small child. These taboos have disappeared completely. Public breastfeeding is actually very important. You only learn to breastfeed by watching it being done, just like dancing. Women who have never seen breastfeeding and try to do it by reading a book can get techniques wrong. In societies where everyone breastfeeds in public (such as Amazonian Indians) you simply do not get breastfeeding problems or failure.

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

    Gabrielle Palmer: I do read the critics but have not read reviews of this third edition yet. When the first edition of my book was published in 1988 I got consistent praise from all quarters and was touched at how widely my message was understood. No one ever said anything unkind or unfair. But some people looked at the topic from a different point of view. In 1991, the delightfully thuggish Richard Littlejohn saw someone reading my book in the London tube. He wrote a piece saying he couldn't understand why she was reading it because she was so ugly that no one could ever be desperate enough to fertilise her so she would never breastfeed anyway. I learned something from this 'review'. Did I mention something about misogyny in the paragraph above? I always hope I learn something from all feedback. I belong to a writers' group. None of the other authors have anything to do with my subject. They have been hugely helpful in commenting on this edition as I wrote it. As outsiders to the topic of breastfeeding they challenged me and made me strive to be clearer and explain things.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Gabrielle Palmer: In no order of priority: teaching and giving talks; answering emails; writing about other related subjects; working on my allotment which I've done for 30 years; gardening; visiting and entertaining family and friends; looking after our grandchild; playing tennis; walking; housework; cooking; doing cryptic crosswords; playing scrabble and/or cards; reading; going to the cinema or theatre; bird-watching; talking; listening to the radio; going to a pub; punting. I used to travel a lot especially for work and I loved the feeling of adventure when I arrived in a new strange place. I once totted up that I had been to over 50 countries (some very briefly): these included North Korea and Libya during the air embargo. I felt very privileged that I could go off the beaten track and work with people and not just be a tourist. However I have nothing against tourism. I now try to minimise air travel because of global warming. However I do shift my priorities. My son and his Basque wife live in Northern Spain and I had never visited them since they married nearly two years ago. I did not have the time or money to go overland so I flew. My husband has also had to travel a lot with work and we both now want to stay home more and to explore Britain which has so many beautiful areas. I love trains and have travelled in them in India and China as well as in Europe and the USA. Incidentally whenever we go on holiday I vow that I will have nothing to do with the baby food issue. Inevitably the first shop I pass has some terrible advertisement which is breaking the WHO Code. I sigh and take a photo to send to IBFAN. I long for the day when the world comes to its senses on this resolvable issue.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Gabrielle?

    Gabrielle Palmer: I am working on an internal advisory document about complementary feeding of older infants and young children. I cannot tell you any more about it because it is a confidential commission. A lot of my work has been helping organisations make decisions about infant feeding policies.

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

    Gabrielle Palmer: I admire the journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski and feel sad that he has now died and will never write again. I also love Bill Bryson. I would read anything by these two authors whatever it was about. I have produced a list of my ten favourite books for you and the difficulty was leaving so many authors out. I also love 19th century writers like Charles Dickens and George Elliot. I relish Mark Twain. I read lots of non-fiction and get very engaged. I've just finished The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. I think this the most important book of the decade and want everyone to read it. It's a good job I only read it after my book had gone to press otherwise I would have delayed publication to include its remarkable evidence and ideas and my publisher would have wanted to kill me. I love psychological novels and murder mysteries. I enjoyed Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal which converted into such a good film. I am someone who will read or re-read the book after seeing a film adaptation. I must admit that I waste time reading newspapers and ration myself. I resist buying one because I can idle away the day with ephemeral journalism, especially when I have an urgent deadline.

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

    Gabrielle Palmer: My first reaction to this question is to say: 'don't do it, there is no money in it and you will suffer too much'. Apparently some people really enjoy writing but most writers I know suffer. The good times are good but the bad times are dreadful. But it is a type of compulsion. Like many writers I sometimes don't know what I really think until I've written it down. I suppose if I have any advice, it is the well known adage that Jane Austen followed: 'write about what you know'. So many people have incredible life stories and they don't think they are special because they are humble and modest but writing it down gives so much to others. My other advice would be to find a good editor or join a writers' group. Writing is a lonely business and you can get carried away with too many words. Everyone needs a kind but ruthless friend who will tell you when you are too boring or long-winded. A good editor is a true friend. If the publisher does not provide one find your own. Even if you ignore their advice, their comments still help.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Gabrielle Palmer: I suppose I would say do please read my book because I have put my heart and soul into it and the explanations here are inadequate. I fret about the environment and what the world will be like for my grandson and his peers. My experience from poorer societies is that people do not need loads of stuff to be happy and our rampant materialism has done harm. Everyone needs food, shelter and healthcare but after that it is the human contact that makes life fun. I have seen laughing, barefoot children playing with homemade cricket bats in a Dhaka slum and people dancing their hearts out to a local band. My own children played outdoors for two years when we lived in Mozambique and were quite happy without TV or loads of toys. Fresh air, imagination and a sense of fun was all they and the other children in the street needed. In my own society people moan and children whinge. The Spirit Level proves that equality is better for everyone on every score. My vision is that no child suffers from malnutrition (which includes obesity) and that no adult is so sad and disconnected from life that they need private jets or extra cars and houses to prove their worth.

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