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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
The Book Depository: What gave you the idea for White Man Falling Mike?
Mike Stocks: The premise of White Man Falling is that a white man falls out of the sky into a small south Indian town, causing all kinds of curious ramifications – spiritual, romantic and domestic – in the complicated lives of the main characters and their wider community. I can no longer remember the trigger point for that idea, but I’ve had a thing about Tamil Nadu in south India for some years, to the extent that I’ve even grappled with the language during three terms of evening classes at SOAS in London. At my most triumphant I attained a comedy schoolboy-French level of competence. And I’ve travelled in Tamil Nadu a lot. On my last stay there I rented a flat in an undistinguished suburb for six months, for a fiver a week, and just observed the lives going on around me. I suppose my characters started to assemble, and my story started to form, during that time.
BD: How long did it take you to write your novel Mike?
MS: It was done in uneven phases to fit around my work as an editor, my other writing projects, and my lovingly tended bouts of writer’s self pity; but around eighteen months, all told.
BD: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
MS: That’s a nitty-gritty, trainspotter’s question – which is fine – and here’s my nitty-gritty, trainspotter’s answer. I write my prose on a laptop, in a variety of places: at home, in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and in cafes all over. But I don’t start writing until I have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel researched and planned, which takes about six months. When I do commence the writing, each day I generally spend twice as long in messing around with what I’ve already written than in writing new stuff, so there’s always a deep-level edit going on. Eventually this dance of one-step-forwards, two-steps-back somehow results in the first draft of a book. At that point I feel fantastic, sometimes for as long as twelve seconds. Then it’s back to the beginning and a thorough revision through to the end. Only then do I think I might have a working draft, something I’m prepared to show to someone else. In the case of White Man Falling, my editor was pretty happy with most aspects of the book at that stage, and gave me practical suggestions for those parts of the book he was unhappy with – most of which I agreed with and acted on. I enjoy being edited well. Then the book goes through further layers of polishing and buffing up – the winnowing of adverbs and adjectives, the further sharpening of descriptions, and all that malarkey. Both myself and my editor are inveterate tinkerers, so the process of revision just goes on and on until the last moment.
BD: What do you do when you are not writing?
MS: I edit other people’s novels, for money; I run and edit a small poetry magazine, not for money – it’s called Anon and it uses an anonymous submissions procedure, so I like to think there is a radical aspect to its tiny impact on the world; and I write poetry. Writing poetry is my main creative interest. A major component of writing – for me at least – involves waiting to have something to say, and when it comes to poetry I do much more waiting than writing. I’m like a bloke standing on a desolate canal-side from dawn till dusk, staring into the grimy ripples, solemnly chewing on his Tunnocks Caramel Wafer as he waits for his float to start bobbing up and down. Most days nothing happens – but you need to go fishing if you’re going to catch a fish.
BD: Do you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Do you write specifically for them?
MS: I’m new to being published, so part of me finds it difficult to move on from the notion that my ideal reader is “a reader”. But the real answers to these questions are “No” and “No”. Although White Man Falling is my first published novel, five unpublished novels preceded it, and they are so diverse that I doubt there’s a reader alive who could be interested in all of them: there’s a campus comedy, there’s a second-novel-syndrome book that is too harrowingly bad to describe in public, there’s a literary-historical mystery, there’s a commercial eco-thriller, and finally there’s a contemporary literary novel. Then there’s my poetry, and I also write translations of the poetry of the 19th century Italian poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli. I just write the kind of stuff that I enjoy reading, so I suppose I’m my ideal reader…
BD: What are you working on now?
MS: Nothing. I’m doing my best to help Alma Books promote White Man Falling, and I’m enjoying giving my recently published poetry collection Folly a little push. And it would be nice, when I’m standing on that desolate canal-side I was talking about, for a big fat perch of a poem to attach itself to my line. As for my next novel, I have a setting in mind, and I think the story is beginning to form – but I feel that the first step in writing it is not writing it yet.
BD: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
MS: I’m not big on favourites, but E.A. Robinson and Robert Frost have written poems that are amazing at the highest level – my definition of ‘amazing at the highest level’ being that that the poems seemed amazing when they were written, they seem amazing now, and I suspect they will seem amazing in the future. So those writers are the ones I admire the most. I arrived at these American poets via the English poets Betjeman, Larkin and Auden. But my love of a powerful poem seems pretty irrelevant these days. When you consider the pre-eminence of poetry in the literary culture of the recent past, poetry today seems little more than an old ruin with some shrubs growing in the rubble, starved of light by the surrounding vista of skyscrapers that is the novel.
My favourite novelist is probably Evelyn Waugh; Decline and Fall, though not his best novel, is the work I’m most fond of – as much for the part it has played in my life as for the book itself.
BD: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
MS: I’ve got more to say about this than anything else! In theory I could be a cracking tipster for aspiring writers. Just look at my qualifications: I’m forty, and my first novel and poetry collection are out this year; I have five unpublished novels under my belt, the first of which was written when I was twenty-four; I could have put out a really good debut poetry collection by the time I was thirty, but no one wanted it; and although I attracted four literary agents during my years of being an aspiring writer, even with their heavy guns behind me I just couldn’t break through... My first agent advised me that it often takes young writers ten years to break through. I remember thinking, are you crazy? – it won’t take me anything like ten years to break through. And I was right. It took seventeen.
Tips are useful – for example, when I wrote my commercial novel, I found the practical advice in Al Zuckerman’s rather embarrassingly titled Writing A Blockbuster Novel to be invaluable – but at the same time I feel that the serious aspiring writer should always retain his or her autonomy, and not get swept away by a mentor or a creative writing course or a system or an obsession with networking. Serious aspiring writers are the people who know they’re writers because they don’t stop writing books no matter how difficult their circumstances and no matter how bleak their publishing outlook. That kind of person will learn everything about the practice of writing (and the jungle of publishing) from first principles, by becoming more and more professional and experienced as they go along. Outside help can speed things up, but sometimes at a price that isn’t worth paying.
It’s the non-serious aspiring writer – the people who would write / finish their books if the circumstances were right, if someone would hold their hand tightly enough – who really want and need tips. But no amount of tips can compensate for a lack of drive.
It’s sad to report that if you have some cachet in another field – journalism is the classic example – then you have a head start; and it’s tragic to report that if you are a celebrity gardener / TV presenter / comedian etc, then you can sell your book before it’s been written, regardless of how good or bad it might turn out to be. But don’t get hung up on that, it’s out of your control.
The bottom line is that unless you’re a very stable person – which, if you’re a serious aspiring writer, you almost certainly aren’t – then you’re likely to endure sustained periods of confidence-sapping rejection. You are investing much of your self-worth in the belief that you are a writer, in a world which doesn’t seem to share that belief. In the worse case scenarios (er, see above) the years slip away and you become terrified that the lucky break is not going to happen – because luck is a big factor in your publishing fate, no matter how talented you might be. I was an aspiring writer for longer than most, so I can fully empathize. What can I say? I don’t want to sound like Rudyard Kipling, but if you can carry on in the knowledge that failure is by far the likeliest outcome, with all the costs that imposes on your knackered psyche, then you’re probably a writer.
BD: Anything else you would like to say?
MS: I’ve probably said too much…
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