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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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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