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  • Carol Topolski

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Carol Topolski is a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Her many previous roles include music festival organiser, advertising executive, teacher, nursery school director, director of a rape crisis centre and refuge for battered women, probation officer and film censor. She lives in London and is married with two daughters. Monster Love is her first novel.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Monster Love?

    Carol Topolski: well, I'm not at all mystical when it comes to writing, but having spent much of my professional life rummaging around in the unconscious, I have to say the story -- or a character at least -- popped up quite unbidden one day when I was writing something else. I can only think she emerged from the dark side of my mind. I was experimenting with a first person voice in another story and suddenly found myself writing two sides of A4 in the primitive voice of a little girl who appeared to be in a cage. That was Samantha, on whose death at the hands of her parents the story is predicated. Ironically her voice didn't make the final mix, which was saddening but fitting, since she was invisible and inaudible throughout her short life. She's become a punctuation stop in the stories of other people.

    MT: What made you want to write a novel about a child murder?

    CT: Ingmar Bergman called the grim time just before the dawn dilutes the night the hour of the wolf, and says that it's in those moments that the worst thoughts imaginable often occur. I wouldn't be the first parent to find that space teeming with terrifying anxieties that something might happen to my children. My world shifted when I had my first baby, since now I had a tiny dependent to protect. I'd been alarmed by the threat of nuclear war before I gave birth, but now I was alarmed by the threat to her. So for me a child being murdered was the worst possible hour of the wolf imagining and I wanted to explore that territory, map its consequences -- push my own tolerances to the edge probably. At a more macrocosmic level, a child represents everything that is unsullied and innocent in a society -- everything a society needs to believe exists in order to have a picture of itself as broadly good, so killing a child is a mortal insult to that picture and offends us all.

    MT: The Gutteridges kill their child, Samantha, in a hideous way. Did writing about their fictional crime help you understand how such crimes can occur?

    CT: I have to confess to an embarrassingly long CV, and one of my previous incarnations was as a Probation Officer. I have therefore spent a considerable amount of time in prisons -- though fortunately they always let me out! -- and with criminals. It must be pretty obvious that I'm interested in the darker aspects of humanity and in discovering not just the who or the what or the how of a story, but the why. There will always be crime -- delinquency and disobedience are inevitable in even the best regulated of societies -- so the interesting thing for me is to find out what in any community is designated criminal and how that community chooses to police it, judge it, punish it. Another of my incarnations was as a film censor for the BBFC, so my memory banks are full of ideas and images from films where crime and the criminal are under inspection. Louise Bourgeois once said "Happy people don't have stories" and while I don't entirely concur, for me it's certainly true that unhappiness has complexities and mysteries that are fascinating to try and understand: complexities that happiness lacks.

    MT: What do hope your novel will achieve?

    CT: The 'Monster' of the title is deliberate. By defining people as monsters, we rid ourselves of the need to think about them: we can consign them to a bin and walk briskly away. It's a headline term, a slogan, with no depth and no real meaning other than giving us authority to repudiate someone absolutely. Casually. It's similar to what I call the nose-job phenomenon -- you know, the if-only-I-had-a-nose-job-I'd-have-a-career-and-a-boyfriend-and-money-and-the-sun-would-shine-all-day. That is, if only we can cut out people we designate as monsters, then society would magically have a pretty face. It doesn't work that way. I wanted to put the reader inside the heads of two people who have committed monstrous acts, not to exonerate them, but to make them spring out of a two dimensional headline into a three dimensional existence. Out of understanding comes change.

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

    CT: From start to finish, about four years. I had to fit it in with my practice -- not always easy -- and, after all, being my first, I was learning on the job. Rather like being a parent for the first time. Reading books can help, but you'll really only know how to change a nappy by doing it.

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

    CT: Oh, I'm a queer old-fashioned thing. I write in longhand. Not that you can see it in print, I have an almost wholly illegible handwriting that even I struggle sometimes to decipher. When I wrote my reports for the Film Board before the advent of computers, the secretaries used sometimes to pin one of my reports to a Wall Of Shame with words circled and a plaintive note attached saying 'can anyone tell us what this says?' From time to time I could. But it means that the words on the page are irreducibly mine -- and that I never lose anything I write because I then type it into the computer, onto two memory sticks and print it out. Then edit from the printed copy. I'm ashamed of all the dead trees but it all helps me to own the writing. And I edit when it's all done. Then again. And again...

    MT: You are a practising psychotherapist -- how does your work inform your writing?

    CT: My work with patients can't help but inform my writing. Over the years they have been subtle and excellent teachers of how the human mind works, how conflicts occur, how fantasies and reality clash and mesh and how to effect change. That being said, I have been scrupulous about ensuring that no part of any patient's history has appeared on a page. Not a jot. But then up pops the unconscious again and while consciously they're not there, unconsciously what I've learned from them is certainly present. They are, after all, a vital part of my own history and what they've told me is in turn part of my telling. I am indebted to them.

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

    CT: I made the mistake, I think, of not staying with the first person voice throughout. There's one character -- James -- who couldn't be written in the same way as the others and that was because of my own limitations. I couldn't bear to be in his head, so his story is told at one remove. I struggled with that, because it felt -- feels still -- like a hiccough in the narrative, but what he'd done and how he felt about it was unbearable. Essentially I wimped out, so I didn't resolve that one. The other difficulty was in the structure. As you know, the story is told in discrete accounts by people who have been involved with Samantha's parents, so plotting who would speak when was a tricky bit of literary architecture. I was given a fellowship to an artists' colony in Costa Rica two years ago and in my room I had two huge tables running along two sides of the space. I separated each account out, laid them along the surfaces and moved them hither and thither like a wordy jigsaw puzzle until they seemed to fit together. Utterly concrete, but it worked.

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

    CT: Oh, I'm a moth-to-a-flame where equivocal reviews are concerned. I suppose I may develop a more calloused skin some day, but for the moment anything even remotely negative floors me. I've been very fortunate in the reviews I've had, both in print and on the internet, but when someone says something critical I do take it to heart. That being said, I've certainly learned something from the responses to the book that I'll apply to my second and subsequent novels.

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

    CT: Talk. Then talk some more. Then talk and laugh and debate and gossip and chortle. Then talk... As a pretty gregarious creature it's a mystery to me quite why I've chosen metiers that root me in contemplative silence for hours at a time, but I do find a creativity in silence which complements the creativity in conversation. People are my food and drink, both in life and in my writing. Of course, I also love cinema, theatre, music, cooking, yoga and - strangely -- reading.

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

    CT: I suppose while I write hoping that I actually have readers, I don't bear them in mind when the story's taking shape. In that sense, I'm talking to myself -- or at least the part of my mind that's generating the ideas and images. I've been terribly gratified by how broad a sweep of readers 'Monster Love' has had and how many of the readers who have generously reviewed it on Amazon have said "I don't usually read this sort of book but..." so they're as surprised as I am that they've enjoyed it.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    CT: I have a two book deal with Penguin/Fig Tree, so I'm working on my second novel, due to be published in 2010 I think. I seem only to be able to write about dark things at the moment, though that may change, so this one examines -- among other things -- some unusual sexual inclinations. Probably not a comedy then...

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

    CT: Oh my goodness, that's a tough one! That's the sort of question that immediately blanks one's mind. Easier to say the kind of novels that grip me: novels that draw me into new ways of thinking about the world/politics/people; novels that challenge my assumptions, introduce me to seductive characters, talk to me in strange tongues. I specially like to read a novel set in foreign parts when I'm actually there, so I read Don de Lillo's Falling Man when I was in New York recently and Alessandro Baricco's Silk in Italy. Both mind-bogglingly brilliant.

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

    CT: I suppose the only tip is to play. Play with words, with ideas, with character until what's finally on the page is your unique voice. Don't borrow -- consciously at least (we're all guilty of unconscious plagiarism) -- other writer's tricks because it will dilute and distract your own truth and your writing will suffer as a result. Above all, enjoy yourself -- enjoy both the thrills and the despair of struggling to express what you want to say and allow yourself the freedom to get it down in whatever form it occurs to you. The rewriting can be the most creative part of the process.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    CT: Thank you for having me.

  • Nick Edwards

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Dr Nick Edwards is an Accident and Emergency (A&E) doctor working in the UK and a passionate believer in the NHS. However the reforms, political correctness and the Anglo-Saxon culture of binge drinking and fighting and the resulting A&E visits are a strain on his sanity. So to keep up his morale, he began writing down his feelings - a form of literary cathartic therapy - the results of which make up this book. In Stitches (download the free e-book or buy the book) is his first book.

    Mark Thwaite: What first made you want to write about your experiences in A&E?

    Nick Edwards: The book wasn't really planned or inspired and to this day I still really don’t know how I ended up as an author.

    One of my ways of coping with the stresses of working in A&E is ranting. I have spent years perfecting the art - I do it in a deliberate over the top and sarcastic way, and now would classify it as a hobby. But one of my wife's favourite hobbies is moaning about me ranting.

    So, to protect my marriage, I started a blog - as a form of literary catharsis and a way of expressing my frustrations with work without annoying her. It quickly became popular, but the blog only lasted a couple of weeks before my wife made a comment on the blog, reminding me that she was eight months pregnant and that I had to get off the computer otherwise I would loose my testicles!

    I closed the blog – saying the powers from above have forced me to close. Readers thought it was NHS management who closed me down and probably in sympathy, within 24 hours, I had two book contract offers and an interested scriptwriter wanting to turn the blog into a TV series.

    And so I decided to face my wife’s wrath and write a book in the same blog style – to try and show people what it is like working on the front line of the NHS. As I wrote, I realised that it relieved some of my stresses. But it also made me realise that I have a fascinating, challenging and privileged jobs and that I am lucky to do what I do. I also realised that I should stop moaning so much.

    But as interest in the book grew, I realised that it could take on a political dimension – show the reader what is actually happening to the NHS. The NHS is a fantastic institution and has benefited from all the extra resources. But the way it is managed and the way targets distort priorities is demoralising the workforce. Worse still political decisions pervade down to and affect patient care. The NHS Support Federation read the book and realised that it agreed with everything they had been campaigning for and have been a fantastic support.

    MT: What was the most disturbing thing you've seen as an A&E doctor?

    NE: There are three levels I can answer this on; the most disturbing emergency, the most disturbing patient and the disturbing effect of management interference with clinical priorities.

    There are so many disturbing cases but one sticks in my mind. My baby had just been born and so I was probably being very sensitive at the time. A baby had been brought in after a cot death - we tried to resuscitate the baby but failed. I was in charge of the resuscitation and had to tell mum we were going to stop as her baby had died. She seemed distraught but quite with it. We "demedicalised" the dead bay – removed the intravenous lines and the tube in his neck and wrapped him up and gave him to mum. She kissed and cuddled him and I soon realised that she had not taken it in. "We will go to the zoo tomorrow, sorry I wasted our fun today by coming here instead. You love the sheep... We can feed them tomorrow." I wanted to cry and have a coffee, but instead had a whole queue of patients waiting to see me.

    The most disturbing patient was a young man who was brought in to us by the police as he had suddenly become unconscious. He wasn’t really unconscious just an episode of AAS – arrest avoidance syndrome.

    In the resuscitation area that he came into was an 80 year old man who was with his wife of 61 years. She was dying of pneumonia. He wanted the last few moments of her life to be peaceful and loving. The patient with the police, soon woke up and was swearing, aggressive and rude. It didn’t bother me – I am used to it – but I told him to be quiet as the patient next to him was grieving for his dying wife. He screamed out "old man – your wife's a s***." The police took him, but not before he had traumatised the grieving man.

    Then finally there is being disturbed by management and over zealous implementation of targets. In A&E we have targets that 98% of patients need to be seen and sorted within 4 hours. Some mangers panic if patients are in A&E for too long and over-ride our clinical priorities and push us to admit patients who need further work on them in A&E. Patients can occasionally get suboptimal care and I find this disturbing.

    MT: The lows -- long hours, violence, etc. -- are vividly explored in your book -- what are the highs?

    NE: Numerous. I love my job – especially having the camaraderie of a close set nit of colleagues and the banter that ensues. I think patients prefer to see their doctors and nurses happy and not stuck up in a politically correct snobbery.

    I enjoy the challenge of making diagnosis, teaching younger colleagues, continuing learning and researching new things and also – it sounds corny – but of making patients better. I have a very small attention spam and so things like putting back a dislocated shoulder are instantaneously gratifying.

    But the best part is working with the public and seeing all their individualities coming to the front. Recently, I had a confused Nun who had got drunk and been brought in. We then phoned the Mother Superior and she insisted on telling us that we had the wrong person and that the nun was cleaning the church. Eventually, the Mother Superior realised her mistake and came round to pick her up.

    MT: What can be done to stop violence against A&E staff?

    NE: Patients get violent for a number of reasons – they are scared, they are in pain, they have waited too long, they are mentally unwell, they are drunk or drugged or they are just nasty pieces of work. You can’t isolate a cause.

    What you can do is protect staff better- better security based in A&E and better training for us. Also we need to change the culture from patients knowing their rights to realising their responsibilities as well and for hospitals to write warning letters when patients are aggressive, not pandering to their abuse………..

    A colleague once took a rude and aggressive patient moaning about why he was waiting so long into the window of resuscitation department to show them why they were waiting - a series of very sick patients silenced the moaner. But within a week a complaint letter arrived complaining about the psychological distress the doctor caused. I am told the hospital wrote to apologise…….

    MT: How have colleagues in the NHS responded to your book?

    NE: Generally very well indeed. Most agreed with my sentiments that we are lucky to have the NHS but it needs to be run better. I was worried that being outspoken would make it difficult for me to get a consultant job and I didn’t want to become known as a writer– and so I wrote it under a psueodname.

    So in fact, no one at work knows that I wrote the book. It is quite funny people talking about the book in the coffee room when they don’t realise that you wrote it.

    When people are talking about it, I usually slag it off and say it was probably written by a self obsessed egotist who should have just concentrated on his real work. It I quite amusing to hear colleagues ‘defend’ ‘Nick Edwards’ to me

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

    NE: My wife moaning at me for not spending enough time with her. I bought her expensive shoes with the small amount of royalties - she soon got off my back.

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

    NE: I would come home from work and write how I felt – it helped with the stress and I would just write and write without checking what I was saying. I felt sorry for my editor!

    MT: What do you hope your book will achieve?

    NE: People will see what it is like working in A&E and so if they ever come to the department they will understand the stresses we are under. Also I would hope that it has a political edge to it – the NHS is under threat from piece meal commercialisation and privatisation. Bodies such as the nhs support federation have shown a great deal if interest in the book and it had been on newsnight and a couple of newspapers and even been quoted by politicians.

    However, it came out just as the friday project were undergoing financial problems and it never got much exposure or product placement, or entered for any competitions/prizes.

    I still think that there could be a bigger political effect from the book – helping to galvanise people to defend the principles of the nhs but for that to happen, it needs more pr and interest.. Any help from readers would be really appreciated.

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

    NE: Generally the press interest was quite positive and the reviews generally good. However some of the critical comments online i.e. on amazon were quite true – badly written in places, too political etc and so I will take that on board for the next book.

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

    NE: Doing my job! As an A&E doctor in training I am busy – working lots of hours, doing research into improving outcomes after cardiac arrest and I do a lot of teaching to nurses, junior doctors and medical students. 8 years after medical school and I am still studying for exams – fellowship exams to enable me to become a consultant.

    I also have a baby and one on the way and that takes up lots of time. I also play football, although as I am awful I spend a lot of time as a sub, so it doesn’t take that much time up.

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

    NE: I originally wrote for myself on my blog and so didn’t have an ‘ideal’ reader in mind.at all. But when I was putting the book together I wanted to make the book interesting to non medical people, without being patronising.

    MT: What are you working on now Nick?

    From a literary point of view I am writing irregularly for a couple of newspapers on health issues. I am also starting to write In Stitches 2 – although hopefully we will come up with a better name.

    I also have a playwright who has approached me to turn the book into a TV series. The rights have been sold to tiger aspect productions and he has written a treatment document which we are trying to pitch to various TV companies.

    In the long run I would like to become a part time doctor and part time author – I have penned ideas on popular science books written in an easy to read style similar to In stitches. My ideas are for a book on how the body works, 101 best ways to die and an easy to read and amusing but useful first aid book.

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

    NE: I know you will think I am just jumping on a bandwagon, but I love the Harry Potter books and when I am feeling down get stuck into them. Sorry not very highbrow.

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

    NE: I am not sure I am qualified to say really – my book came about purely by chance.

    Write for fun on something you are interested in and have a passion about. From my royalties balance sheet, make sure that you have another job and do it as a hobby and not think of it (initially) as a way of making money.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    NE: If anyone has any comments on the book, wants to enter the book for a literary competition, is interested in my suggestions for new books, or wants to contact me then please email me on drnickedwards@gmail.com. I also have not got (have never had) a literary agent at the moment so if there are any agents interested please let me know.

    Finally I think the book is best read in the bath or on the toilet in small bursts. So although we are giving away the ebook free on the website – see Editor's Corner – I would recommend the reasonably priced paper version – with free delivery!

  • David Ellis

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    David Ellis has taught in Australia, Italy and the United States and is now emeritus professor of English Literature at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Apart from a wide variety of writings on D.H. Lawrence, he has published books on Wordsworth and on Shakespeare, most recently Shakespeare's Practical Jokes: an introduction to the comic in his work. He has a strong interest in biographical method (as his book Death and the Author shows), and has written extensively on that topic.

    Mark Thwaite: What first made you want to write about D.H. Lawrence?

    David Ellis: I suspect that if you’re brought up in a mining district, and you are interested in books, Lawrence is always likely to seem an important figure but then, when I went to Cambridge, I was taught by F.R. Leavis so that it soon became natural to me to regard Lawrence as someone whom one might well want to think or write about.

    MT: You approach Lawrence from the perspective of death (and the general response to it) — why this angle?

    DE: I think the story of Lawrence’s death, and what happened after it, is peculiarly dramatic and poignant (as well as on occasions grotesque), but I wanted to make its arresting details an occasion for reflection on a number of issues which matter to us all: what it feels like to suffer from a disease for which there is no cure, for example, what we feel about hospitals, the allure of alternative medicine or the powerlessness of the dead to affect how they are remembered. My aim was to write a different kind of biographical study, one which was something more than "one damned thing after another."

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

    DE: I knew I was up against it, first in writing about Lawrence (who is hardly flavour of the month) and then in wanting to talk about such a cheerful subject as death. I could only tackle the first problem by trying to show that Lawrence was a much more complex and interesting person than is now generally assumed although I also took pains to vary the reader’s diet by introducing into my discussions a number of other famous literary consumptives -- people like Kafka, Chekhov or Orwell. As far as not being too depressing is concerned, there are in my book quite a number of jokes, although most of these are necessarily of the gallows humour variety, and I’ve tried in writing it to remember that normal people read books for pleasure and not out of duty.

    MT: How long did it take you to write and research Death and the Author, David?

    DE: I've worked on Lawrence for over twenty years, on and off, and written a lot on him in what is mostly an academic vein so that much of the relevant material was already in my head. Puzzling out the form of this book, making some additional enquiries, and then writing it, took me about two years.

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

    DE: I enjoy writing but after a few weeks feel that I need or want to do some more research, but then, when I have been doing research for a while, I itch to get back to the computer. As for the process of writing itself, I tend to sketch out a section of a book in longhand, revise the sketch several times and then go to the computer when the skeletal form is clear in my head but there will still be plenty of room for manoeuvre as I write.

    MT: What do you hope your book will achieve?

    DE: I'm always gloomy about the prospect of what I write achieving anything, but I would hope that I could dispel several prejudices about Lawrence and also help a few people who want to think about dying, death and remembrance. At the same time, I have tried to write the book with enough pace and verve to be enjoyable. That the subject matter is serious is no excuse for being solemn and pontifical.

    MT: Lawrence's star seems to have been waning since Leavis’s time -- why do you think this is David?

    DE: It certainly has waned. Forty years ago his books were on every university syllabus, now you would be hard put to find many of them being taught in this country, or any at all in the States. One of the reasons for this is that his reputation during the 1960s was based far too much on Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which is not one of his best books) but, since it is quite true that he wrote some passages which are distinctly misogynistic, another, more general one is what is known as the second wave of feminism. It hasn’t helped also that Lawrence was not a liberal in politics. You might ask what a man’s attitude to women or to democracy has to do with whether or not he is a good writer but, as far as Lawrence’s standing in the academic world goes, the answer is a good deal.

    MT: Do you think we’ll ever see a Lawrence revival? What are his strengths as a writer?

    DE: Well, the pendulum always tends to swing back but I can’t see his reputation ever being as high as it once was. As for his strengths, that’s a question it would take hours to answer properly. Perhaps I can stress here his extraordinary versatility (novels, short stories, poems, travel books, literary criticism etc.), the immediacy of much of his writing, and the remarkable techniques he was able to develop for conveying to his readers nuances of feeling which, as far as those who experience them are concerned, cannot be articulated.

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

    DE: Death and the Author was designed as a book for the general reader so that I’m very disappointed that it did not get more widely reviewed. But then reviews are usually lessons in humility. From past experience I know that I tend to interpret favourable mentions of my work as just people being kind and take to heart the unfavourable ones, even those I recognise as ill-informed.

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

    DE: Good question. I used to play cricket for a local village team and then I tried some golf but now I watch my sport on television. I still exercise a fair amount but, as my wife complains, when I'm not writing, or the writing is going badly, I’m sadly deficient in alternative activities. I'm told I ought to develop a hobby but hobbies are not the result of an act of will. Still, our younger daughter now has two small children and they more than fill what I think Parkinson calls the time allowed.

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

    DE: I remember that Stendhal always thought of an ideal audience for his writing which included Madame Roland and his old maths teacher at school (both of whom were of course dead). I have one or two living ideal readers among my friends who are kind enough to scribble over my first drafts but I don’t suppose I write specifically for them. There are of course always people in the wider world whom you admire and dream of pleasing but, although it seems ludicrously solipsistic to say so, I think that when most people set out to write books what they have in mind is something they themselves would like to read.

    MT: What are you working on now, David?

    DE: I'm writing a book with the self-explanatory title That summer of 1816: Byron on the lake of Geneva.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What are your favourite books?

    DE: This is a difficult question for anyone who has spent most of his life teaching literature. How do I discriminate between the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Tolstoy etc.?I suppose if I have a favourite period it’s when romanticism is beginning but many writers are still imbued with 18th century values, and that’s why Stendhal was such a revelation for me when I first discovered him at school.

    In the case of Lawrence, I always go back to the three great novels -- Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love -- but I also love many of the poems and Sea and Sardinia. Of course, this misses out the short stories and novellas, but we’re back to the question of his versatility again.

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

    DE: Since I still aspire myself it would be pretentious of me to offer any tips. Keep at it has been my motto up to now.

  • Fflur Dafydd

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Fflur Dafydd is from Llandysul. She graduated in English at the University of Wales Aberystwyth, before gaining an MA in Creative Writing in East Anglia University and a PhD at the University of Wales Bangor. Currently, she lives in Carmarthen and is a part-time lecturer in Trinity College, and a freelance author and writer. Her first novel written in English is Twenty Thousand Saints.

    Mark Thwaite : What first gave you the idea for writing Twenty Thousand Saints?

    Fflur Dafydd: I spent six-weeks as writer-in-residence on Bardsey Island back in 2002, an island off the tip of the peninsula of North West Wales, and knew, almost from the moment I got there, that this tiny island – reputedly the island where twenty thousand saints are buried – would be a huge source of inspiration. It really was a turning point for me – I was at the time a young writer, 24 years old, and a research student with very little to say outside my research topic – and then suddenly I was thrown in amidst a very different community of people and forced to learn quickly, mixing with people of all ages who I would probably never have the fortune or insight to meet on the mainland; ecologists, archaeologists, bird-watchers, seal-watchers, farmers etc. who all helped me gain some valuable life experience. I felt it a huge privilege to become part of this community, to become an islander for a short while, and also to get to know a place that is a huge part of our Welsh heritage – having been seen throughout the ages as a sacred place of pilgrimage, solitude, reflection.

    Living on Bardsey makes you forget about the mainland, and emotions are extremely keenly felt, which obviously has its advantages and disadvantages. It is also a place, that as Brenda Chamberlain once said, “is governed by the moods of the sea; its tides, its gifts, its deprivations,” and I felt that the sea around us also played its part in changing the narrative of people’s lives, keeping the boats away for long periods of time, and changing the nature of the events on the island. Leaving there was an unexpectedly painful experience; it had become my everyday reality so quickly that I didn’t want to let go, but knew I had to, and this is probably why I’ve decided to revisit the island through fiction, because there are still things I want to say about the intensity and beauty of island experience, and I’m keen to share what was such an important learning curve for me. Even though the characters of the book are fictional; I was eager to remain true to the island’s landscape and geography, to locate events in real places, and to generate a real sense of the island’s mood and atmosphere, and to share some of the wonder of this mystical island that changed my life, and my outlook, forever.

    The title, Twenty Thousand Saints is a playful take on the island’s mythological identity, and as the novel progresses, addresses different notions of ‘sainthood’ in the novel’s characters. The island is also, in some ways, a microcosm of Wales itself; and also addresses cultural and linguistic identity.

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

    FD: I took about two years to write this book, about a year and a half pottering around with ideas and getting a draft together, and then six intense months of rewriting to give it definition. It started out as a translation of a Welsh-language novel, and after about a year or so, I decided that it really wasn’t working – so I decided to start from scratch with a completely different story. But having that amount of time to muse and re-write is complete luxury for me – both my Welsh language novels were written under extreme pressure in around three months or so, and with a looming deadline, as I was keen to enter them both into the Prose Medal competition in the National Eisteddfod of Wales – a competition for an unpublished work, entered under a pseudonym. The first novel, Lliwiau Liw Nos, was shortlisted, but didn’t win – so I had another three months then to work on it before it was ready for publication. The second novel – Atyniad – was awarded the prize, and as is customary with this competition, it is then published straight away. I wouldn’t really recommend this timeframe however, even though there’s a lot to be said about immediacy in a work – it has a kind of truthfulness that is often lost through the editing process. Having said that, I think the process of writing Twenty Thousand Saints over a much longer period of time was much healthier. It’s the result of countless deliberations, and is a much stronger, more polished work as a result.

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

    FD: I write straight on to computer. I write the first draft for plot, without stopping to correct anything, and the second draft for character. I don’t usually really start editing until I’ve already got something substantial that resembles a draft, and then I notice the many inconsistencies and more or less write the whole thing again!

    MT: You normally write in Welsh -- Twenty Thousand Saints is your first English-language book. Is English your first or second language? How does writing in English compare to writing in Welsh?

    FD: Welsh is my first language; and I was brought up by Welsh-speaking parents, in a Welsh-speaking community, and received the majority of my education through the medium of Welsh. I chose, however, to study English at University, at MA and PhD level, and part of the reason for that was because of a fascination with the language and its literature, and a desire to explore a language that was at once alien and familiar to me. Writing in Welsh is completely different to writing in English; because fewer writers are writing in Welsh, there is so much more to be done, and there is real opportunity to be innovative with the way that you use the language. English is different; less vulnerable as a language and therefore more robust and exacting, so that when writing in English I’m less concerned with language innovation and more concerned with finding my own voice and identity within that language. Ideally, I would like to be able to recreate the rhythm and feel of the Welsh language in the way I use English, though I’m yet to discover if my readers will recognise that in the writing itself, or whether English is inevitably always just English.

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

    FD: There were many difficulties with this novel – one of those was the notion of writing about a real location using fictional characters, and the worry that, because it is a small island, perhaps some islanders would feel that I was misrepresenting the island in some way, or shattering the island’s myths through challenging them. But ultimately you have to overcome these fears as a writer, and I have come to know the island in a different way by recreating it as a fictional space.

    MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your earlier books? Did you learn anything from them that affected the writing of Twenty Thousand Saints?

    FD: I did learn a lot from the reviews that came after my second novel Atyniad (a kind of predecessor to Twenty Thousand Saints.) There was a lot of criticism that was very useful; to do with how I presented character. Looking back at Atyniad, I am now able to see that there were far too many characters to allow the narrative to flourish properly, and so with this novel I decided to scale down, and focus on four main characters, and to get to know these characters in depth. Reviews are usually useful in terms of technical advice, although by now I’m good at recognising if the reviewer has an agenda. The Welsh-speaking community is a fairly small one, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that some reviewers will hate anything you write just because it’s you, making bizarre comments about your age, whether or not you do too many other things apart from write, in short, anything but comment on the work itself – and I have a pretty good idea now who those reviewers are, and have developed a much thicker skin to deal with them! I can finally look forward to reading reviews by people who know nothing about me, and even if they have negative things to say about the book, I will appreciate their honesty and the fact that their standpoint is a neutral one, and that it is the work itself, not the author, that motivates their criticism.

    MT: You are also a musician Fflur -- tell us a little about that.

    FD: A student once said to me: “there’s another Fflur Dafydd who sings, do you know her?” I was tempted to lie and say that I did not, for in many ways it feels like music and performing belongs to another life, and another persona. Music forces me out into the world, and makes me more human! Writing is such an intense, solitary pursuit, and music is my release from it, a sociable experience in every aspect – working with a band, going to concerts, becoming part of a scene and meeting other musicians. As an act we’re called “Fflur Dafydd a’r Barf” (Fflur Dafydd and the Beard), and I write mainly Welsh-language songs that are a fusion of blues, soul and pop, performing them on guitar and vocals, with a much more able and talented four piece band behind me, holding the whole thing together! We’ve released two albums so far – and we plan to release another next year. You can check us out at www.myspace.com/fflurdafydd.

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

    FD: When I do have time off – proper time off – there’s nothing I like better than to spend time at home watching films and comedy DVDs. I’ve just worked my way through 6 box sets of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I’m now planning to tackle the list my brother has given me of ‘1001 films to see before you die!’ Watching quality film and television is the only time I ever really ‘switch off.’ Other than that I enjoy cooking elaborate meals for friends and family and reading as much as I can.

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

    FD: That’s an interesting question. Perhaps with Welsh I do think about the kind of people who would be reading the book, and perhaps subconsciously I am addressing them in some way in my writing. When it comes to writing in English I think that making the leap from a smaller audience to a much bigger one takes away that notion, so that you return to writing just for yourself, writing the kind of book that you, as a reader, would enjoy reading in that language.

    MT: What are you working on now Fflur?

    FD: At the moment I’m working on a black comedy about undertakers in Carmarthenshire. This is an idea I’ve been working on since I was an MA student in UEA in 2000, and for some reason or other it’s never been finished. In the meantime, I met, fell in love with, and got engaged to an undertaker’s son from Carmarthenshire (who, incidentally, is also one of my band members – a marriage of musical convenience) – so now I feel like I’ve got the motivation and the family contacts and resources to be able to complete it! It’s unbelievable the lengths a writer will go to for the sake of a good novel…

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

    FD: It’s impossible to say from one month to the next – I tend to get obsessed with certain writers, read a lot of their work, and then move on. I have recently been reading a lot of Milan Kundera and Daphne Du Maurier – worlds apart in terms of their styles and yet they both offer so much insight into human relationships. I read Kundera for character and philosophy and Du Maurier for mood and plot. My all time favourite text, however, will always be The Outsider by Albert Camus. I am still in love with Meursault’s cool, laconic voice, and I think it’s a novella that demonstrates the cunning economy of style and the astounding power of the unsaid.

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

    FD: Don’t let a day go by without reading or writing something – even if it’s only a diary entry or a short extract from a book – it will ultimately provide the stepping stone back to where you want to be as a writer. I look back at my days as a freelance author (before I was a lecturer) and I can see how I frittered away a lot of my writing time because I wasn’t yet aware that you can always do something to move your writing forward – even if the ideas don’t come at once. There’s nothing less conducive to writing than staring at a blank screen for hours on end or beating yourself up about wasting time. Guilt should never be a part of a writer’s life!

     

  • Richard Napier

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Richard Napier has been a compulsive anagrammatist since his mother introduced him to the Daily Telegraph crossword at a young age. He lives in Surrey and has worked in the media for over 20 years. My Gonads Roar is his first book.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for My Gonads Roar?

    Richard Napier: I was on holiday in the south of France with a particularly tough Daily Telegraph crossword. One of the enigmatic clues that day got me thinking and the idea of creating an alternative world using anagrams as a base appealed to me, especially given that there is an element of truth hidden within many people’s names. All I change is the order of the letters; the new identity is already there just waiting to be unveiled. What I didn’t want to do, however, is just write a book that complied a list of anagrams. While some anagrams can indeed be funny in their own right, I wanted to write a comedy book that comments on the resulting outcome and creates an alternative, somewhat surreal world. Many of the anagrams in the book are even funnier once you’ve read the blurb about them.

    MT: Your anagrams rearrange the names of the celebrities. As well as having lots of fun, are you trying to highlight the absurdity of celebrity culture?

    RN: Absolutely, it would have been rude not to. There is tremendous satire to be had with those that maybe try too hard and appear on as many reality shows as possible just to try and maintain their ‘celebrity’ status. We currently have ex S Club Seven member Rachel Stevens on Strictly Come Dancing and one wouldn’t rule out the possibility of her teaming up with a couple of old band mates along with the boys from Blue to form a new band. Mix up the letters Rachel Stevens Blue and you get The Real S Club Seven! Of course, habitual celebrities such as Jordan, Lisa Scott-Lee, Abi Titmuss and Gareth Gates all come in for a bit of stick.

    MT: When did your first start doing anagrams? Is it an obsession!?

    RN: It’s certainly an addiction -- as soon as I meet someone, I’ll create an alternative existence for him or her. I think I was 8 when my mum introduced me to cryptic clues and I just loved them. Then through school I had great fun realising schoolmaster was an anagram of the classroom -- and I longed to have a German teacher called Mr Egan. I realised that my addiction stopped just short of being an obsession when I went to the doctors with a pain in my ears. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I had this nasty ringing sound in my arse.

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

    RN: A year and a half. Sadly not everyone has a name you can anagrammatise that easily, so you have to go through a lot of Mikjah Plytsads, before you can celebrate a gem like Only Cars Jerk Me for automobile fanatic Jeremy Clarkson. Although that doesn’t stop people continually asking me to do their name, even though they’ll be called Jim Judge or something -- the letter "j" is always a tough one, hence why I like the Clarkson one so much.

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

    RN: Very sadly, I sit with reams of paper and write letters in a circle, it helps you see alternative names in the best way. Once I have an anagram I’m happy with, I’ll get out the laptop and begin the challenge of creating humour out of the new name or title.

    MT: Would it be wrong to ask if you could do me!? What anagram can you make of me, book-obsessed Mark Thwaite!?

    RN: There you go there’s always someone... The best anagrams are those that are pertinent, rude or just bizarre and sometimes you can get lucky and go to one of several excellent websites, which will generate hundreds of different variations of your name and one may stand out. But it really helps if you know the person that you are dealing with and to be as creative as possible. So if for example you, Mark, didn’t have a dry sense of humour, we could say Mark Thwaite, a.k.a Wet Mirth, which is mildly amusing, but not fantastic. With a bit of research though, I discover that you have a new blog and live South of Manchester. So:

    Mark Thwaite bookdepsoitory.co.uk = A Web Rookie. A Mouthy Stockport Kid.

    Rather splendid as it even uses the two dots from the web site address.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing or doing crosswords?

    RN: I watch my eldest son play in his band; I coach my youngest son’s football team and watch my daughter wear a lot of pink.

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

    RN: I think it’s impossible to write something like this for a typical reader. Readers of the lads’ mags, I would imagine, will love Ross Kemp starring in a film about a broken sausage called Pork Mess or Amy Winehouse asking the press Why U So Meanie? But there will be a different type of person who appreciates that Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveller's Wife) translates as Iffy Underage Genre or believe Yann Martell’s Life of Pi was A Mental Yarn. So I hope the book has a very broad appeal. Interestingly, those who have had a sneak preview have all picked different chapters as their favourite.

    MT: What are you working on now Richard?

    RN: Book 2, which will be published by Faber next autumn.

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

    RN: Parts of Ben Elton's observational humour I really like and Stephen Fry is brilliantly funny. Favourite book of recent times is David Peace’s The Damned United.

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

    RN: Uniqueness was everything for me. The agents I initially approached all received a bespoke letter with their individual anagram name. I was lucky enough to have Laetitia Rutherford at Toby Eady Associates to address as The Ultra Fair Editor. Jamie Coleman at the agency picked up on it, loved the concept, added some great ideas and everything snowballed. So if there’s any way at all (and yes it is very difficult) of making your submission stand out, it can only be a good thing.

    MT: Do you have a favourite celebrity name anagram?

    RN: I guess it will always be difficult to beat Virginia Bottomley admitting I’m an evil Tory bigot, but I would love the new Arctic Monkeys album to be called Sticky Romance or Linwood Barclay to write a book about Darnell from Big Brother entitled Cowardly Albino. These are the things that keep me awake at night.

    MT: What is the best anagram you can make from your own name?

    RN: A bit of poetic license needed, but as a horny young commission based salesman, I could have been A Rich Randi Rep.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    On.

    (If your readers don’t get that one Mark, maybe buying the book’s a bad idea…)

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