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  • Tan Twan Eng

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, but lived in various places in Malaysia as a child. He studied law through the University of London, and later worked as an advocate and solicitor in one of Kuala Lumpur's most reputable intellectual property law firms. He also has a first-dan ranking in aikido and is a strong proponent for the conservation of heritage buildings. He divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town, The Gift of Rain is his first novel and he is currently working on his second.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Gift of Rain?

    Tan Twan Eng: There wasn't one single flash of idea for it. I was planning a huge novel about the history of Malaya but it became too daunting for me to complete. I decided to take out a few minor characters and write a smaller novel based on them. I told myself, "If I can finish this smaller novel, then it'll give me more confidence to complete the larger one." Strangely, I soon found these characters more compelling and interesting, and what started off as a small-ish novel grew into The Gift of Rain.

    I also wanted to write a novel set in Penang, which is an amazing location, rich with atmosphere, history, tragedy and natural beauty. It's one of the earliest places settled by the British East India Company, in the 18th century.

    Although I was born there, I grew up in other places in Malaysia, and it was only later in my teens when I moved back there. That was the period when I suddenly realised how rich in material for a writer Penang is. Each road, each street, each colonial building had some story to be told. But all of these roads, houses, pre-war architecture are fast disappearing, and so The Gift of Rain is also a paean or a testament to them and the island.

    I'm also intrigued by the impact the West has had on the East, and Penang is an ideal place to study the results of this meeting and clashing and melding of cultures. Using the character of Philip Hutton, who is half-English and half-Chinese, I wanted to explore as many aspects and repercussions of this East-West meeting as possible.

    MT: How long did it take you to write The Gift of Rain Twan?

    TTE: It took me around a year to write the first draft. Working from 9am till 5pm several days a week. Sometimes I'd also write after dinner if I felt there was something I wanted to put down on record. I was also studying for my Masters degree at that time.

    MT: What did it mean to you to be longlisted for the Booker prize?

    TTE: It was an immense honour to be on the Longlist, especially for a first-time author. It has also helped elevate our profiles – mine and Myrmidon Books – around the world and I'm very glad that happened as we initially faced obstacles in getting people to read, review and stock the book. And being on the Longlist has also meant – for me – a validation of my writing plans in many ways, and a repaying of the faith my agent, editor and publisher have in me.

    MT: Do you read the critics Twan? Have you been pleased with the response to your work? Have you learned anything from it?

    TTE: I do read the critics - which first-time author doesn't? I'm pleased at many of the responses and the comments, although there have been some critics whose comments I felt indicated that they haven't grasped or understood the book or the social, historical and cultural contexts of the story.

    Some critics complained that I was overly-detailed, while others said they wished there were more in-depth descriptions! Another was disappointed that I ignored the worker-class segments of society and their fight for better wages – which had no relevance to the novel at all.

    What have I learned? That you can't please everyone!

    MT: Your book is about pre-war Malaya – did you have to do much research?

    TTE: I've been interested in pre-war Malaya since I was a teenager and I've been reading up on it for years, collecting materials, books and articles. There wasn't much research - more a confirmation or checking of facts. It's also intriguing how some of the scenes or situations I made up in the book did actually exist in real life when I was checking my facts. And because Penang has - until recently - retained so many of its historical elements, I could still see how life had been lived 50 years ago.

    MT: What were the biggest challenges in writing The Gift of Rain? How did you overcome them?

    TTE: The biggest challenge was finding a balance between explaining too much and too little. Because Malaya (and after its independence, Malaysia) and Asia are so unfamiliar to readers around the world, I had to make sure the things or events which I took for granted and never thought twice about would not be perplexing to my readers.

    Yet I had no intention of writing a textbook – for me the heart of a novel is always the story. So I had to make certain my readers would comprehend the background essential for the appreciation of the multi-layered narrative. The clarifications had to be part of the story – unobtrusive, non-gimmicky, harmonious to the whole.

    Of course it would have been so much easier to explain things in numbered or bullet-point form and in distracting and unusual fonts and pass it off as a piece of post-modernism but that would have been to insult the intelligence of my readers. I find gimmicky writing-styles to be distracting and annoying when reading a book. If the story is strong enough, one doesn’t need weird typography, split columns and upside-down paragraphs in a novel to make it good.

    Also, the philosophical and religious elements of China and Japan I raised in the book - for example the concepts of fate and predestination - would have been unusual and daunting to these readers. That’s one of the reasons why I included aikido in the book. Aikido is one of the most philosophical of the martial arts, more a cultivation of the mind than anything else, although it is an effective and lethal self-defence form. It carries within it elements of Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, the Way of the Tao and it also exemplifies how many Asians think and see the world and behave in daily life.

    In the book I used the very few scenes involving aikido as the vehicle to lighten the load on these elements. Through action, the reader can understand what Philip Hutton has to absorb and accept, mentally and also in his life. Think of these scenes as something similar to the musical interludes in a musical – every time the singing stops, something or someone would have changed – the character, the relationship between characters, the understanding and growth of the character.

    I overcame these challenges by reading over and over what I had written, trusting the nagging voice inside my head.

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

    TTE: I write directly onto a computer – and definitely with lots and lots of editing and amendments! I like seeing the words on the screen – it makes them seem more ‘real’. I have difficulty writing when I have to use pen and paper.

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

    TTE: I read a lot and I travel and answer my emails and then I read some more. There are also the details of daily routine to attend to.

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

    TTE: I don’t have an ‘ideal’ reader in my mind when I write – I write more for myself when I start, and only towards the end those other considerations – which I’ve mentioned above in Question 6 – come in. But after I’ve finished writing, I do have an ‘ideal’ reader: someone well-read who’s open to new ideas and is interested in other parts of the world.

    MT: What are you working on now Twan?

    TTE: I’m working on my second novel, which is set during the Emergency in Malaya, when the Malayan Communist Party tried to take over the country just as the UK was about to grant independence to Malaya.

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

    TTE: My favourite writers - I can’t just name one! – would be Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Edmund White. I also find Martin Booth sadly underrated.

    Favourite books – Midnight’s Children, An Artist of The Floating World.

    [You can read about more of Tan Twan Eng's favourite books in his Tuesday Top Ten article on our Editor's Corner blog.]

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

    TTE: Read as many books as you can, and as widely as possible.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    TTE: To the other authors on the Man Booker Longlist this year, I’d like to say it’s been an honour for me to be on the same list as all of them. To my readers, I hope they’ve enjoyed The Gift of Rain.

  • Indra Sinha

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Indra Sinha was born in India. His work of non-fiction, The Cybergypsies, and his first novel, The Death of Mr Love, met with widespread critical acclaim; Animal's People has been shortlisted for the Booker prize. He lives in France.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Animal's People?

    Indra Sinha: In 1996 I made some notes for a screenplay titled Green Song, which was an attempt to tell a fictionalised account not of the Bhopal gas disaster, but of its aftermath – of the suffering, the wicked neglect and the struggle of its people – people I know very well – for justice. The story of Bhopal is almost beyond belief. In October 2002, Outlook India wrote:

    "Bhopal isn't only about charred lungs, poisoned kidneys and deformed foetuses. It's also about corporate crime, multinational skullduggery, injustice, dirty deals, medical malpractice, corruption, callousness and contempt for the poor. Nothing else explains why the victims' average compensation was just $500 - for a lifetime of misery ... Yet the victims haven't given up. Their struggle for justice and dignity is one of the most valiant anywhere. They have unbelievable energy and hope ... the fight has not ended. It won't, so long as our collective conscience stirs."

    This was the background, but novels are about people not issues. I knew Bhopal too well. To write freely I had to imagine another city. In this fictional place, which I called Khaufpur ("khauf" in Urdu word means "terror") the characters could come to life. Even so, the attempt to transcribe screenplay to novel at first wouldn't work. No matter what I tried, the matter remained dark and lifeless. One day a friend said he had met a boy who went on all fours. Two days later my daughter Tara told me about an old Frenchwoman she had met, who had forgotten how to speak all languages except her childhood French and thought everyone else was just making meaningless noises. Thus were Animal and Ma Franci born. Animal decided that he, not I, would write the book. And he did.

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

    IS: I began in the autumn of 2001 and finished early in 2006. This included two years when no actual writing got done because I was working 18 hour days as a volunteer for the Bhopal justice campaign. What triggered this was the fear that a friend would die in a desperate hunger strike. The story is told here. This is how I knew what it was like to fast without water in temperatures of 140F. Later I would learn about the duplicity of politicians and the stubborn bravery of those left to suffer. Like trickles flowing into a river, all these experiences found their own paths into the novel.

    MT: What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the Booker prize?

    IS: It's thrilling. The media attention is fun, but won't last long. The best thing is that the novel will now be read and have a chance to find its audience, because word of mouth is what creates lasting success for a book. The greatest accolade that a writer can have is that their book has become popular because people who read it loved it enough to recommend it. Animal and I have been lucky. A lot of very good novels disappear without trace each year. We will never have the opportunity to rediscover them or to know what has been lost.

    MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the response to your work? Have you learned anything from it?

    IS: I've had some magnificent reviews. No stinkers so far, although one will surely be along soon. People seem to like Animal despite his foul language and questionable behaviour, although some find his syntax irritating. Critics often disagree with one another. One said Animal's hallucinogenic sojourn in a forest disappointed him because it was "a Rushdie not a Sinha ending", whereas another reviewer, a novelist, praised the "extraordinary tension" of the last 100 pages. After a novel is published, I think the author has to stand back and let the work speak for itself. Sometimes it's difficult to hold one's tongue. I am hoping someone will sooner or later start wondering about the alchemical motifs that run through the book.

    MT: Your book uses the disaster at Bhopal as its backdrop. Does your novel have a polemical point to make? How are things now in Bhopal?

    IS: I hope that Animal's People can make a different to the Bhopalis and help them in their campaign. But it can only do this if it succeeds in its own right as a novel. After 23 years the Bhopal issue is so complex, its various strands - legal, medical, social, human, environmental, political - so intertangled that it would take a PhD to unravel them. For the novel, all of this had to be simplified – a catastrophe years earlier, the company refusing to come to court, the factory still poisoning, people still ill, children being born with terrible deformities, politicians selling their own people down the river in return for dollars – hardly ever do these issues come into the foreground and whenever they do, Animal is there is debunk and deride, dissolving polemic in the acid of his own cynicism.

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

    IS: Directly into an Apple notebook. I've been writing one way or another since I was ten and learned to use a typewriter at 15, so the keyboard feels natural to me. The advantage of the computer is being able to do endless versions, but this is also the main disadvantage. You are never obliged to commit yourself. If I get stuck, or am travelling, or out in nature, I carry a notebook and write with a fountain pen, usually a Rotring Newton 600 with hexagonal barrel, but the best fountain pen I have at the moment is a Bic. The hand-written sentences flow faster with less reflection and contain ideas that haven't been intercepted by the busybody editor in the brain. The computer makes it possible to achieve deep layering, but one has to be careful. As Kingsley Amis used to say, overworked prose has 'a whiff of the lamp'.

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

    IS: Read, listen to music, watch movies. Vickie and I watch more television now that our French is improving. We live in a dilapidated water mill with the river on three sides and underneath us. There's a weir complete with sluice gates that are our responsibility to manage. On our third day here we woke to find the Mayor climbing into the garden in a state of some agitation. 'Monsieur, the Ministry says we must clean the weir immediately, if the village floods that's me hanging from the next lamp-post.' 'Next lamp-post to what?' 'To yours!' Three days of cutting, weeding and scraping, in gloriously hot weather, cooled by dips in the river and it was done.

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

    IS: In Animal's People, the Kakadu Jarnalis urges Animal to record his story on tape and says: 'Animal, you must imagine that you are talking to just one person. Slowly that person will come to seem real to you. Imagine them to be a friend. You must trust them, and open your heart to them, that person will not judge you badly whatever you say.'This is pretty much how I feel. I know that I don't like every novel ever written and that some people won't like mine. I know it's a bit of a cliché but I try to write what I think I'd enjoy reading. If I had to identify an ideal reader, I'd point to the book bloggers. They read books for the love of it, are better read than most professional critics, write intelligently, without rancour and have to gain an audience by the quality of their writing.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    IS: A novel set in Patmos in the year 95CE. It tells of Yokhanan, a very old man who, in earlier in his life had been part of a radical movement for change in Palestine. I'll leave you to surmise the rest, but whatever you surmise I promise it won't be like that, and it is most definitely not a historical novel. After Yokhanan I have a story set in England in 2043, followed by a tale spanning two centuries in Europe, then two stories set in France, one near the Bordeaux coast and the other I am not too sure about as I only had the idea yesterday.

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

    IS: All time favourite? Very difficult, a list inevitably coloured by childhood. The only criterion is that these are books I have loved. The choice is from:

    I hate to choose, but if forced, I'll say Lawrence Durrell. His work is not to everyone's taste, but he was a writer's writer and had lived a very romantic, literary life, ending up in the south of France, not far from where we now live. Nearly thirty years ago, Vickie and I backpacked round France in a sort of homage. I carried a portable typewriter and recall tapping away on a table under a tree with ripe plums splatting all around, smouldering Gitane and glass of wine to hand. I felt like a real writer, just like Larry Durrell.

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

    IS: Work hard and don't give up. Don't be discouraged if you can't find an agent or a publisher. The internet is changing things, there are now many more ways to find a readership. Believe in your characters and write for the sheer joy of it. I have some stuff for writers on my website, www.indrasinha.com, plus an even longer list of classic fiction.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    IS: Buy Animal's People, or Animal will get you.

  • Jeremy Blachman

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Jeremy Blachman is not a hiring partner at a major law firm, but he is the author of a popular American blog called Anonymous Lawyer. The blog was profiled in The New York Times and receives an average of more than 100,000 readers a month. Blachman is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

    Mark Thwaite: Anonymous Lawyer started out as a blog. Did you conceive back then of it ever becoming a book?

    Jeremy Blachman: I didn't. Honestly, I started the blog mostly on a whim. Second year of law school, I had just finished interviewing for a summer job at a law firm, and mostly I'd been struck by how similar all of the interviews were, and how similar most of my interviewers had seemed. I'm sure I was a terrible interviewee -- I didn't have a burning desire to work at a firm, and I'm not a very good actor, and each time I stepped out of one of the interviews I was convinced they'd seen right through me and knew I wasn't terribly committed. But even if they thought that, none of them could say it in the interview.

    I started thinking about what must be going through the minds of these hiring partners as they interviewed dozens of students in a row, surely getting the same over-rehearsed answers over and over again. And there weren't any blogs written by actual law firm partners -- how could there be -- they'd lose their jobs if they were anything close to candid -- so I figured I'd start my own. I thought it would last maybe a week and then I'd run out of things to say, but I quickly discovered I liked writing in this guy's voice, and law school had given me all sorts of material, the readership built up quickly, and so I kept writing. Eight months later, I was getting about 2500 readers a day, and the New York Times ran a story about the blog... and immediately I started hearing from publishers and agents... and that was really the first time I thought about turning it into a book, and writing a novel from the character's perspective.

    MT: What gave you the idea for writing a blog (and then book) from the fictional perspective of a "hiring partner at a major law firm"?

    JB: I guess I've answered most of this question in the previous answer. It really stemmed from my experience going through the law firm recruiting process, meeting all of these lawyers at probably three dozen different firms, and thinking about how they would be reacting to someone like me, who, to some extent, was only doing it for the money and didn't have a real commitment to working there -- an attitude I think is pretty common among law students looking for jobs. As well as my shock as I started to discover the excesses of the summer programs and how much money and energy was being spent to recruit law students. My actual experiences at the firm I worked for were pretty positive -- but I started to imagine the worst of what it could be like, and the blog grew from there. And it was a lot more interesting (and fruitful) to write satire from the perspective of the guy at the top than from my own perspective as merely a law student.

    MT: As you are not a "hiring partner", how much research do you have to do? Do you have to sound authentic to be funny?

    JB: At first I thought I would be uncovered as satire immediately -- that I would be missing key details and that my limited experience at a firm would be apparent. But as I kept blogging, and as I read the comments people would leave on the blog or the e-mails readers would send me, I realized it wasn't as hard to fake it as I'd feared. And in fact, the more over-the-top I started to get, the bigger the response. I'd write something I thought was incredibly farfetched and unrealistic -- about associates working on their BlackBerries from the hospital an hour after giving birth, or getting fired for the tiniest infraction -- and I would hear from lawyers who said these were exactly their experiences. The more over-the-top I thought I was getting, the more I'd hear from lawyers telling me I was reflecting their lives -- which baffled me, because I didn't honestly think the law firm world was quite this bad. At the beginning of the blog, the character was much more restrained than he is now. As I've gotten more comfortable with the voice, I've made the satire broader, I think, and aimed for funny more than authentic. But hopefully I've been able to keep it grounded in reality enough that there's some element of truth there that people are responding to. As far as research, most of it was honestly guesswork, and occasionally I'd use Wikipedia to grab a detail I needed -- the name of a restaurant, or a high-end service provider someone like Anonymous Lawyer might use. The Internet is very helpful for that -- even though the blog and book take place in Los Angeles, I'd actually never even been there until after the book was finished.

    MT: How long did it take you to knock the blog into shape for a book?

    JB: I started working seriously on the book right after law school graduation in June '05, and really got rolling after the bar exam that July. I had a draft to the publisher around January '06, and I think the revisions were finished in March. With every draft, there was less and less blog material and more new material, until it ended up that the book is about 85% new material that isn't on the blog. To get the plot to work and to fill out Anonymous Lawyer's world with a whole supporting cast of characters, I kept finding that the existing material didn't really belong, and I needed to start from scratch. And it would also be silly to ask readers to pay money for something they can get for free online -- so I'm very glad that the overwhelming majority of the novel ended up being new material. I see the blog as the character background, and the novel as Anonymous Lawyer's real "story" -- since the blog doesn't have a plot going through it at all, and there are no other characters besides Anonymous Lawyer himself. They're really two different pieces of work.

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

    JB: Directly onto a computer, and then I print things out, mark them up by hand, and edit back into the computer. Since high school I haven't really been able to write longhand anything that I know will eventually need to be typed, but I've never developed the ability to edit much on screen. I ended up with about two thousand pages of draft printouts, all marked up. Only in the past few months have I run out of the backs of those pages as my printer paper and had to actually go out and buy paper.

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

    JB: I go to see a fair bit of theater, watch movies and television, spend time with friends and with my girlfriend, watch baseball games, try new restaurants, I read a lot. In theory, I like to think I play sports, but in practice I find that even though I have a tennis racket, golf clubs, and a baseball glove, I don't actually use them very often, unfortunately. I think part of that is because I live in New York City, but that's probably just an excuse.

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

    JT: I've found over time that my best motivation is external rather than internal, and I like having an "adult" who I respect and who I'm trying to impress. That's probably who I write for the most, whether it's my editor or whoever's in charge of whatever project I'm working on. The times I'm least productive is when there's no one filling that role; the times I'm most productive is when someone's demanding something of me. It's probably not what *should* motivate a writer, but it seems to be how I'm wired. For the book, it was definitely all about impressing my editor. I'm not sure he knows that.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    JB: I've been working on a sitcom adaptation of Anonymous Lawyer -- Sony optioned the rights to the novel and paired me up with a terrifically talented television writer/showrunner named Jeff Rake. We co-wrote a pilot for NBC, but they've passed on it for now, so we're trying to shop it around elsewhere. I've been writing some other television scripts and am hoping to get staffed on a show. I've also got the beginnings of another novel, but I'm not sure I'm ready to write another novel until I have some more life experiences and something that I'm really burning to say. There's also a non-fiction I've been playing around with, and have interviewed some people about it, but it's nothing concrete yet. Ideally, I'd like to end up working in television -- writing the novel was incredibly rewarding, but there's something about the collaborative process that really excites me. I wrote for a theater group in college, and again in law school, and that kind of experience, being in a room with other creative and talented people, all trying to pitch jokes, hammer out story, and really create something together -- I don't think I've found any other experiences that give me the same rush as that does, and I also think the time pressures and creative obligations you have as a member of a writing staff motivate me in a way that makes me more productive and more fulfilled than I am just sitting in front of my computer trying to crank out a manuscript on my own.

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

    JB: I think Bill Bryson is terrific. I've read everything he's written. I'm A Stranger Here Myself is probably my favorite. Paul Collins is amazing -- his book, Not Even Wrong, about his son's struggles with autism, interwoven with a history of the condition, is an absolutely terrific read. David Shields has written a couple of books I love -- Remote and Enough About Me -- about culture and society and the nature of autobiography.

    I like books that get me inside an author's head and give me a glimpse of how they think. I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction -- in a way, I hope Anonymous Lawyer reads like a non-fiction, because that was sort of my goal throughout. I want it to feel real, even though it isn't. Seth Mnookin is a great writer -- his book about the New York Times and the Jayson Blair scandal, Hard News, is one of my favorites from the past couple of years. Donald Margulies's plays -- especially "Dinner With Friends" and "Brooklyn Boy" -- I find wonderful.

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

    JB: Start a blog. Anything to make yourself write a little bit each day, to start thinking about the world like a writer, and have a place to save your thoughts and observations. And think about what you really have to say -- what's motivating you to write -- and let that be your guide. I started Anonymous Lawyer not because I thought it would make a good book, or that I even thought it would ever *be* a book, but because I had something to say. And that's my challenge as I work on new projects -- finding that same spark inside of me, that same desire to say something. That should be the motivation, not merely the desire to have written something.

  • Adele Geras

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Adele Geras was born in Jerusalem in 1944. She has been an actress and singer and a teacher of French in a girls' school before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. She has published more than ninety books for children and young adults. Her first novel for adults, Facing the Light, appeared in 2003. Adele has lived in Manchester for 38 years. She married to Norman Geras and has two grown-up daughters and two grandchildren.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Made in Heaven?

    Adele Geras: I was speculating idly about what would happen to a marriage if the wife, say, had an affair which involved meeting her lover only once a year. On every other day of the year, she’d be right there with her husband and children. How would that work? Could it work? At the same time as I was thinking this, I was consciously looking for a story to tell which would be completely different from my first two adult novels. I don’t like being typecast, rather priding myself on being uncategorisable as a writer, but a reviewer had pointed out that my first two adult novels had in them old ladies looking back at their past in some way. That made me decide that this one was going to be firmly based in the present and any old ladies would be subsidiary characters. The subject of weddings was in my mind because our younger daughter was in the process of planning her own.

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

    AG: About ten months, start to finish. It was a very easy book to write and I really enjoyed the time I spent on it.

    MT: You were born in Jerusalem and before you were eleven you'd lived in Cyprus, Nigeria, and North Borneo. Do your early wanderings affect/inform your writing?

    AG: I suppose they must have done, though it’s hard for me to see how directly. I do have, in my books, children abandoned, sent away etc by their parents. I deal with separation and exile quite a lot, especially in my children’s books and also in something like Hester’s Story but I never felt abandoned in the least and loved my time at boarding-school. And it’s good to have other parts of the world which are familiar to you.

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

    AG: I used to write in fancy notebooks, by hand, lying on the sofa. But since my Troy (published in 2000) I’ve written everything straight on to my laptop and now I couldn’t do anything else. I love it. I write a first draft straight off, at the rate of about 1500 words a day, if it’s going well. I scarcely ever do more than about two and a half to three hours actual writing a day. Then the finished text goes to my agent and editor, who come back with comments and these are so much more easily incorporated into the book( if I agree with them!) than they would be if I did everything by hand. The computer is marvelous for editing.

    MT: You also write children's books. Indeed, you've published more than ninety books for children and young adults -- are they easier or tougher to write than your adult novels?

    AG: I think every book has its own problems and no book prepares you for what you’re going to have to deal with in the next. There’s a sense in which children’s books are much easier simply because they’re SHORTER, but the work is the same. You have to inhabit the world of your characters, whether you’re dealing with a fat black cat, or an elderly ex-ballerina. And bear in mind that the younger the age of the child hearing the story, the more likely it is that your work is going to be read aloud, many times over. Not much prose for adults has to stand up to the same amount of wear and tear.

    MT: Ninety is a huge number of kids' books -- do you have your own personal favourite amongs those?

    AG: A little over 90 by now! Though of course some of them are extremely short. It’s like asking a mother which child she loves best, but I always choose Troy and Ithaka. The same Gods appear in both, but otherwise the only connection between them is Homer…The Iliad is the inspiration for Troy and The Odyssey for Ithaka. However, (and I say this till I’m blue in the face and no one takes much notice…still, I shall say it again) neither book is in any way a retelling of Homer.

    Also: the TRUE answer to which book is your favourite is always…must always be…THE NEXT ONE….the one whose possibilities still lie before it.

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Made in Heaven and how did you overcome them?

    AG: I wanted it to be an easy book to read without being either simple- minded or empty. I wanted a cracking good pacy story, but I did want it to be well-written…well, that goes without saying. I didn’t think of it as challenging. It was one of the easier of my books to plot and work out and as I say above, didn’t cause me any problems along the way.

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

    AG: I read all the time. Voraciously, widely and fast. I go to the movies, watch too much tv and chat to my friends. I email people a lot. I read blogs. I cook, and go to the theatre and I used to be a fanatical knitter….I do less of that now, but still enjoy it. If taking naps were an Olympic sport, I’d get the gold. I walk….I do walk, but that’s it as far as sport is concerned.

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

    AG: No, not at all. Not even when I’m writing for young children. I write entirely for myself. I have to fall in love with the hero, cry when it’s sad, laugh when it’s funny, be spooked when it’s scary and then there’s a chance that you might be too….or someone might be. Once you start considering the readers, you’ve had it, I reckon. But I do try to ensure that as many people as possible might like my novels by deliberately including protagonists of all ages in my adult novels….see the ‘old ladies’ referred to in question 1. These ladies have daughters and granddaughters and I try to appeal to several generations in my books.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    AG: I’m happy to say I’m on holiday till at least July, doing a bit of lying fallow after four adult novels in four years. My next adult novel is called A Hidden Life and appears in hardback from Orion in August ’07. I now need time to regroup, as it were. But the project I’m going to be working on next is a teenage book for David Fickling Books about Dido: another classical story.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer?

    AG: I have lots and lots. Jane Austen. Charlotte Bronte. George Eliot. Charles Dickens. Also: Ruth Rendell and her alter ego Barbara Vine; Margaret Atwood; Carol Shields; and a whole host of others. For children: Maurice Sendak and Philippa Pearce. And many more, most of whom are my friends: Anne Fine, Linda Newbery, Jean Ure, Ann Turnbull, Sally Prue and on and on….

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

    AG: My favourite children’s book is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

    My favourite adult’s book is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

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

    AG: Read and read and read. When you write something…anything…read it aloud to catch horrors of all kinds, unintended rhymes, repetitions etc. Develop a thick skin. Don’t give up hope. Try the internet…

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    AG: I do hope everyone who reads Made in Heaven enjoys it as much as I enjoyed writing it. And goes on to read others of my books.

  • Mikael Niemi

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Mikael Niemi was born in 1959, grew up in Pajala, Sweden and still lives there. His first novel for adults, Popular Music, was awarded the August Prize and was made into a film in 2004. It has sold over a million copies worldwide and has been translated into thirty languages. Among his published books are two collections of poetry – Nasblod under hogmassan (Nosebleed during Morning Service; 1998) and Anglar med mausergevar (Angels with Mausers; 1989) – and a young adult novel, Kyrkdjävulen (The Church Devil) (1994). His latest book is Astrotruckers.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Astrotruckers?

    Mikael Niemi: I have always had a big interest for outer space. As a young boy, I loved Jules Verne, and had a lot of fantasies going to other planets. When I was studying in a technical college, I wrote a paper about "Science and outer space", and studied a lot of physics. Is there anything more beautiful than a black midnight sky full of stars?

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

    MN: About 2-3 years. During that time I had other projects in between.

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

    MN: I always write by hand, actually many authors still do. Then I re-write the text on my computor, and start editing it. I edit a lot, I am a perfectionist, enjoying searching for this perfect word, and even more when I find it. In Astrotruckers, I tried hard not to plan my text, but to just look for the "flow", like when I write poetry.

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Astrotruckers and how did you overcome them?

    MN: I tried to be more anarchistic in my writing, more wild, more playful and to be less polite, less structured, less boring. This is very difficult for a polite, structured and boring person like me. But the scenery helped me. In outer space no one can hear you cry, and that gives you a big sense of freedom.

    MT: Like your first book, Popular Music, Astrotruckers is very funny. Is writing humourously difficult for you or are you just naturally funny!?

    MN: A good laugh is what make life worth living. How can we defeat death, pain, boredom, unjustice in our world, if not by a big laugh. Rabelais is one of my favourites, like Mark Twain, Woody Allen and of course the "Monty Pythons"! I am not trying to be funny in my writing, but when the text is getting funny, I usually keep it.

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

    MN: I am a dedicated cross-country skiier. Here in Pajala in north Scandinavia we get the winter in october-november, and have snow until late april. After a day of writing, I love to get out in the skiing track in the deep forest. In a winter I do more than thousand kilometers. My biggest goal is Vasaloppet, the worlds biggest skiing cometition in the first sunday of march, 90 kilometers in one day. I did that six times, a surrealistic experience, to ski among tens of thousands other skiiers, you really feel like an ant!

    Then I play music, piano, accordion, guitar, just for myself. And play with my three children, 10, 7 and 4 years old.

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

    MN: Yes, but I have not just one "reader". Inside me, I see a group of persons, 5-10 perhaps, sitting around a kitchen table, drinking coffee, telling stories. And after listening, I take the word and starts telling. Here in the north we still have a strong oral tradition. Even though I am writing, I still feel like I am telling, talking, using my mouth and voice, and that my readers are listening, not reading.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    MN: I never ever talk about my coming projects. Never open the egg to look for the chicken, another author said once.

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

    MN: I have many. Joseph Heller, Jack London, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the siberian poet Yutzenkov.

    My favourite book is by a Swedish writer, P. O. Enquist, Musikanternas uttag. A wonderful historic novel.

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

    MN: I quote something I heard another author said about this: "Be attentive, openminded and thoroughly rested".

    I can add stubborn. Never give up, I was writing for ten years until my first book was published.

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