Interview With The Author #1

It’s inching ever closer…the day I can announce that I’ve finished my first novel and it’s off being professionally assessed (i.e. savagely ripped apart and chucked back at me in whimpering pieces). My lovely friend Sara (check out her fantastic book-reviewing-blog-with-a-difference here) suggested a while ago that I interview myself about my novel in order to get clear in my head about exactly what the novel is about and why it matters. I did, and apart from being very helpful, it was enormous fun. I thought I’d share it on my blog, in three instalments. Here’s the first.

I have abridged it somewhat, as I don’t want to give away too much at this stage. (I’ve even left out the book’s real title.) Want to find out more? Follow my blog, and I’ll keep you posted on when and how you can get hold of the finished product.

So, Patricia, what’s your novel about?

I’ve been asked this question a lot, and I’m still unsure how to answer it. For a start, the premise is rather unusual, and the plot, which is woven with clues and signs and puzzles, is quite difficult to condense down to a one-minute elevator pitch. Also, I don’t want to give away too much, and I don’t want people to think that the plot is the most important thing about the book. To me, the most important thing about the book is the relationship between the two protagonists, as well as the emotional journeys they embark on, separately and together. That’s what made the story worth writing, and that’s why it’s worth reading.

Just give us a teaser…

Oh, alright then.

*** is the story of a sad and bitter librarian (Maurice) who finds the courage to transform his life – even after it has ended—and of his rebellious daughter (Andrea) who finally learns that a father’s love is powerful beyond imagining. It’s about forgiveness and second chances, the redemptive power of storytelling, and the power of love to transcend all barriers and make us whole.

The book is set in Heaven and on earth.

There are two libraries in the story, and they’re very important. So is fire, along with everything that it symbolises. There’s also a karaoke machine, a drunken barmaid, a rowing race, naked people, and dangerous angels.

There. That’ll do for now.

Sounds intriguing. Is genre a dirty word to use at this point?

Ever so slightly. The book doesn’t fit neatly into any category. I guess contemporary upmarket fiction would come close.  If I say The Lovely Bones meets The Five People You Meet In Heaven meets May We Be Forgiven meets anything by Bill Bryson, that may give you an idea of the book’s essence. On the other hand, it may just make you think I’m a pretentious twat.

You? Never. What about theme?

I love what Stephen King has to say about theme: it is, quite simply, the reason you wrote the book; the reason it matters.

*** matters because it’s about the possibility of forgiveness and repair and second chances, even when we feel we have failed miserably. It’s about fear and courage, and taking risks. As I said above, it’s about the redemptive power of writing and story-telling. And at its very heart, it’s about the power of love, and how it never fails us, even when we think all is lost…even after death.

Right. So not a very ambitious novel, then.

Nope, just a small trifle I dashed off one afternoon between recorded episodes of Masterchef reruns.  (Speaking of which, there is also a chef in the story.)

There are secrets and signs and hidden clues throughout the story.

I’ve always loved puzzles and word plays and mysteries and lateral thinking games. Spy movies, Whodunnit games, murder mysteries, secret signs, red herrings…they’re all in there, to some extent. They’ll make the reader work (in a good way). I think most readers like trying to figure things out, trying to anticipate what’s going to happen. Hopefully they’ll still be surprised, though.

Tell us about the book’s narrative point of view.

At the Auckland Writers’ Festival last year, I went to a workshop by fabulous Kiwi author Elizabeth Knox. I asked her about point of view, specifically which one I “should” be using for my novel. (I use inverted commas because, in my opinion, there are no “shoulds” in the writing universe. There are no hard and fast rules, and we all must find our own style and voice.) Her advice was that first person narration can be very tricky because of the subtleties and complexities often not fully grasped by first-time novelists, and it might be better to steer away from it. Wise advice.

So off I went and continued writing my first novel, which is told by two alternating first-person narrators (Maurice and Andrea), one of whom tells her side of the story almost entirely in letters (it’s called epistolary narration). Well, it was too late to change; I’d already written half the bloody thing. I did, however, rewrite the first chapter in third person, just as an experiment.

Oh God, it was dreadful. This novel has to be in first person; it just wouldn’t work otherwise. I wanted readers to discover Heaven as Maurice did, seeing things only through his eyes, trying to figure it all out at the same time as him. As for Andrea, I wanted the reader to struggle with her as she tries to uncover what really happened in her family; to find things out bit by bit, just as she does. I wanted the reader to grieve and wonder and question and rage alongside her; not at one remove.

And here’s the most important reason I chose first person: both Maurice and Andrea are—and we start to realise this as we compare their two viewpoints—unreliable narrators. As they both recount versions of their relationship, the reader will start to notice discrepancies and gaps and contradictions. And this adds yet another layer of mystery to the novel: what really happened? Who’s telling the truth? Is there such a thing? The reader will, hopefully, work out some puzzles before the two narrators do. And there’s something very satisfying in that for the reader. And only first person viewpoint can offer that extra layer of narrative complexity, I think.

Just don’t tell Elizabeth Knox I ignored her advice.

Keep tuned for my next post: Interview With The Author #2

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