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  • Carol Smith

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    The Book Depository: What gave you the idea for Without Warning Carol?

    Carol Smith: I breakfasted with my publisher’s Sales and Marketing team and they talked about the horrors of the Tube, especially at rush hour. They all told anecdotes and I scribbled notes. The perfect subject ... I was finishing the synopsis when I got the news that the 7/7 bombs had gone off. Almost all of my books have involved a similar weird coincidence.

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

    CS: Approximately nine months; I produce one a year. Three months planning and doing research; nine for the actual writing.

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

    CS: Longhand notes then straight on to the computer. Then I polish and polish and polish.

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

    MS: Very little since I write eight hours a day. I read a lot and listen to music and socialise with my friends. I’m a very keen cook.

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

    CS: Yes, since this is my tenth novel and I get regular letters from genuine fans, I have a pretty good idea of who they are. But, since I am keen that my readership should expand, I try to widen my range with each book. I particularly love getting feedback from male readers.

    BD: What are you working on now?

    CS: A chiller about a female stalker, relentlessly on the trail of one man. The idea seemed to come out of nowhere though the subject, again, has been much in the news after I wrote my synopsis.

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

    MS: I have always been a voracious reader so it’s hard to select particular favourites. Over the years I’ve been influenced by many. My current favourites include Ian McEwan, for his creepy content and taut clean style, Anne Tyler and Carol Shields, both marvellous writers and Patricia Highsmith, who is my principal role model. Her Ripley novels, now immortalised on film, particularly inspire me. Last summer, between books, I reread the whole of her output alongside her biography (Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith). A fascinating and instructive exercise though my own books are not as dark.

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

    CS: Write at least one sentence each day; don’t get it right, get it written. Study the market to see what isn’t selling and pay attention to professional advice. If you can, get an agent, there are loads of them around, but make sure they “get” what you are trying to do. An agent is only ever as good as the writers he/she represents.

  • Christopher Fowler

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Ten-Second Staircase?

    CF: I was reading about the London Monster, a gentleman who went around pricking ladies in the buttocks with a long thin blade a century before Jack the Ripper struck, and was fascinated by the extraordinary social panic he caused. Some more research unearthed an unbroken chain of social hysteria in the capital. In recent times, one thinks of the video nasties and paedophilia controversies. It occurred to me that a social panic tapping into our current obsession with celebrity might be worth writing about.

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

    CF: This was my first book as a full-time writer, believe it or not, and I managed it in about three months.

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

    CF: I can’t bear to think about how I used to write, cutting and pasting from an ordinary electric typewriter. I can’t live without the computer. I produce an outline and three drafts, the first being a skeleton, the second being the most fun, and a final clean-up.

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

    CF: Someone once asked Samuel Beckett what he had given up for his art, and he said ‘I have fairly often not gone to parties.’ I still go to parties, and a lot of films, art, theatre, bars, restaurants – I’m quite good at using London, although I still open Time Out and realize that the thing I most wanted to do or see finished last night.

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

    CF: I’ve learned that it’s dangerous to generalize about readership. Readers are never who you think. I went to a horror film festival last week and met a crowd of scary-looking Goths who just wanted to discuss my books. They were gentle and well-read, like most Goths I’ve met. One the same day, I also met a very suburban family who knew more about my books than I did.

    I don’t get the kind of middle-class readers who like doorstops about turbulent Tories, Tuscan romances or anything recommended by the Daily Mail, which is a shame because they run all the book-groups. I sometimes get invited along to discuss my work, but after about fifteen minutes the group members start talking among themselves about the difficulty of finding decent home help.

    I love so-called ‘genre’ works, which keeps me from being entirely respectable. I find ‘genre’ readers demanding and intelligent, so I find myself trying to write for them.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    CF: I’m two books ahead. The next Bryant & May volume, ‘White Corridor’, comes out next June and I’m now working on the final in the set of six, ‘Victoria Vanishes’. The nice thing about being so familiar with these characters is you know how they’ll react in any given situation, which makes writing easier.

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

    CF: On balance I return to JG Ballard more than anyone else, although Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, EM Forster and the great god Dickens would come with me to any desert island. My favourite book is probably the Gormenghast trilogy, which deserves the spot occupied by Lord Of The Rings; it’s certainly more bravely written – but Peake’s style is not to everyone’s taste. He is a densely descriptive writer, and every sentence carries the weight of his subject. The first two volumes reach over a thousand pages, but within them lives a vast mouldering world unlike anything that has gone before. I used to believe it was important to experience these books with time and youth on your side. I read them at fifteen, and they’ve haunted me ever since, but my father read them at seventy, and they had the same effect.

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

    CF: Fiction means you can make stuff up. It’s not biography.

    Don’t be ashamed of embarrassing yourself.

    Think the unthinkable.

    You don’t always need to explain why people do things.

    Leave room for your characters to breathe.

    Love your hero.

    Dialogue is not conversation.

    Believe what you write.

    Leave something mysterious and unknowable behind.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    CF: I’d like to thank anyone who can still find time to read in these stressed-out, short-attention-span days. And give your favourite authors plenty of feedback – I’d rather get it from book-buying readers rather than critics any day. I can be reached at: chrisfowler@london.com

  • Travis Elborough

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Bus We Loved?

    Travis Elborough: I can remember, dimly, reading somewhere that the Routemasters were going to being phased out. At the time I was doing a lot of research at the British Library and hopping on a number 390 Routemaster to St Pancras each morning from Tufnell Park. Initially, I began by taking photographs of them, simply documenting my daily journeys. But it wasn’t long before I found I’d started digging into their history and my desk at home had become littered with rather battered old Dinky toy Routemasters.

    By chance I happened to meet the publisher Ian Jack at a party. Somehow the topic of this iconic London bus came up and from there I managed to wrangle a book contract with Granta.

    I wasn’t a transport buff as such and I hadn’t grown up in London. My own affair with the Routemaster, as it were, really only began when I moved to the city about ten years ago. I was working at a bookshop on Islington Green, and I used to catch these buses, these wonderful roll-top baths in Guardsman’s red, everywhere. Their routes shaped my earliest impressions of London as a resident. They helped define my ambit, my city. So I wanted to write a book that would both tell its story and act as a kind of fond farewell to a (then) soon-to-be-absent friend from a grateful passenger.

    You can also blame The Who, Madness, Colin MacInnes and Melvyn Hayes, if you like.

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

    TE: It took me about a year and involved clocking in untold hours on the capital’s bus network, chatting to drivers, conductors, engineers and spotters, visiting garages, depots and bus rallies, riffling through back issues of Buses Illustrated and Meccano Magazine and spending many a day in the London Transport Museum's excellent library.

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

    TE: I am perennial scribbler, and am rarely without a biro/pencil and Aldwych notebook to hand, but as far as the real business of writing in concerned… I am afraid it’s a G4 I-book all the way.

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

    TE: Listening to vinyl long-players, film-going, lomo photography, babyfoot, monopoly, backgammon, canasta, and cooking fill the wee spare hours.

    I’ve retired from bus spotting.

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

    TE: Not really, though when I started out I was aware that there was no shortage of books about the Routemaster available, many of which are very good. Most of these, however, it has to be said, are written by bus enthusiasts for bus enthusiasts. Which is fine, and it’s entirely a matter of personal taste but my interests are cultural rather than technical. Cataloguing variations in engine types and fleet numbers etc., etc., isn’t my thing at all. So I set out to do something that looked much more broadly at how this bus fitted into London’s history – how it came into being, why we loved it and what it passing might mean for the city. And, erm, sneak in the odd digressive footnote about Reg Varney, The Double Deckers and Roger Moore era James Bond movies.

    I guess, my aim was always to try to create an informative and, hopefully, entertaining read for ‘the general reader’- the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus, I suppose.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    TE: Another work of narrative non-fiction charting the life, times and adventures of the LP.

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

    TE: Singling out one favourite author or book is impossible for me. Off the top of my head… here are a handful (or three) of books that over the years I’ve pressed on unsuspecting lovers, friends, relatives and complete strangers at inopportune moments.

    Muriel Spark - Loitering with Intent
    Penelope Fitzgerald - Offshore
    VS Naipaul - A House for Mr. Biswas
    Joseph Mitchell – Joe Gould’s Secret
    Saul Bellow – Seize the Day
    Evelyn Waugh – A Handful of Dust
    Anthony Powell – A Dance to the Music of Time
    Richard Holmes – Footsteps
    George Orwell – Coming Up for Air
    Patrick Hamilton – The Slaves of Solitude
    Julian Maclaren-Ross – Memoirs of the Forties
    Philip Roth – The Zuckerman Unbound Trilogy
    Gavin Lambert – The Slide Area
    Geoff Dyer – Out of Sheer Rage
    Edgar Lewis Wallant - The Tenants of Moonbloom
    Dawn Powell - The Locusts Have No King
    Bohumil Hrabal - Closely Observed Trains
    Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road

    Right, I am stopping now, the list could just go on and on and I haven’t even included anything by Hemingway, Chandler or Capote.

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

    TE: Read everything by Hemingway, Chandler and Capote. Actually just read as much as you can.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    TE: Thank you. And try, where possibly, to avoid camping anywhere with an autonomous insect population.

  • Hilary Spurling

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for La Grande Therese?

    Hilary Spurling: Therese Humbert was one of the great con queens of all time - her exposure very nearly brought down the government of France in 1902, and all but destroyed the family of the painter, Henri Matisse. His connection with her turned out to be the skeleton in the family closet (though when I stumbled on it by accident half a century later, & brought it out & made it rattle, the skeleton looked in fact more like a feather in his cap). Therese fought me for control, page by page, while I was writing the first part of my biography of Matisse - I had the greatest difficulty in confining her to 2 chapters so, when that was done, I thought I'd give her a little book of her own.

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

    HS: 20 days nonstop.

    MT: Now that you've put your massive Matisse the Master to bed, do you miss Matisse?

    HS: No - the whole book took me 15 years from start to finish, something I never would have believed possible, and - though it was wonderful in a way while it lasted - I can't tell you what a relief it is now that it's over.

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

    HS: Directly onto the computer (sometimes with a scrawled rough plan first in writing like hen's tracks that even I can't read) - I write slowly with lots of circling round & crossing out & doubling back but, once a paragraph or a page is fixed, that's it - I don't go back over it again, & I never do first drafts that have to be rewritten later.

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

    HS: I like swimming, walking, travelling, seeing friends & going to the proms.

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

    HS: I don't have any ideal reader in mind while I'm writing (it's really me I'm trying to please) - but once a book is out, I always know them by the marvellous letters they send, which make you realise why you wrote it in the first place - so I write back to say you were the reader I was writing for. One of Anthony Powell's characters said that reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them, & I think the same is true of biography.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    TE: It's going to be a short Chinese book about Pearl Buck.

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

    HS: Impossible to say - my favourite writer changes all the time, depending on who I'm reading at the moment - perhaps just now it's Peter Hessler, whose Oracle Bones is by far the best book (hardest to put down, most imaginative & by far the most surprising) I've read about China today. Impossible to pick a favourite book but again perhaps it would be V. Nabokov's Lolita - which I read when it came out - I was very young then & it changed my life - I still think it's the most astonishing love-song to America & the 20th century that i've ever read.

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

    HS: The only way I know of to learn to write is to read other writers.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    HS: No thanks - except that, frightful as it is trying to write a book, I never understand how people get through the days if they don't.

  • Martine McDonagh

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for I Have Waited, and You Have Come?

    Martine McDonagh: An artist friend of mine in the States was rummaging through a skip one day and pulled out a journal that someone had dumped.

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

    MM: On and off about 4 years. There were some very long breaks between drafts and I spent about 6 months researching climate change.

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

    MM: First draft is longhand to curb the temptation to look back over what I’ve done, it’s too easy to find things and edit on a computer. Also it allows me to sit on the beach or in a cafe to write if the mood takes me, or to move easily when I get the fidgets. The first draft will be fairly unreadable as a result but by the time I get to the end of it I think I’ll know where to start. If that makes any sense. I did too many drafts of I have waited, it drove my agent mad.

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

    MM: I manage a band called Fujiya & Miyagi and grow vegetables on my allotment. And I’ve recently finished working as an editor on Dan Smith’s The State of the Middle East. I seem to be not writing quite a lot of the time.

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

    MM: I didn’t have anyone particular in mind. I just wanted to write the kind of novel I like to read myself (not that I can bear to read it now) and I suppose anyone else who doesn’t like having every little detail of a story spelled out to them. I like to have to work a bit when I’m reading.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    MM: I’m about a third of the way into the first draft of another novel, which is about a narcissist with a guru complex. It has a few more jokes in than I have waited, but it’s still quite dark. It’s going to have sub-plots and everything.

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

    MM: I’ve numerous favourite writers, which I suppose means I don’t have one: Ian McEwan, Samuel Beckett, Margaret Atwood, John Pilger, Gary Younge, Richard Yates, Richard Brautigan are among them. When researching for I have waited, the SAS book of Survival was a favourite for many months but in general my favourites are: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Guiseppi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The best new books I’ve read in the last year are Khaled Husseini’s The Kite Runner and James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love. The book I keep coming back to is Geoff Hamilton’s Organic Gardening Book.

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

    MM: In David Grossman’s See: Under Love one character tells another to ‘write the madness’, which really struck a chord for me. I don’t think it means to write only about mad things or people but to look for the unusual or the extreme in a situation no matter how mundane. The best advice I’ve ever come across was in Robert McKee’s screenwriting manual Story – he says about writing a first draft ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’. Genius.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    MM: A big thank you for the interview!

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