Interview With The Author #2

child writing

Welcome to the second instalment of Interview With The Author, in which I interview myself about my soon-to-be-finished novel. In case you missed the first instalment, you can catch up here.

I hope this three-part series offers you some insight into plot, theme, point of view, character development, inspiration and other matters that may prove useful in your own writing.

 

So Patricia, let’s pick up where we left off. You’ve had a lot of fun with Heaven, and the characters who populate it – including many well-known figures from The Bible.

Well, I’m certainly qualified. I was a PK (Preacher’s Kid). My father is a retired Presbyterian Minister, and we all attended church and Sunday School religiously (har, har). Then I leapt, with great angst and fervour, into my Pentecostal phase. I leapt back out again a couple of years later, a little burnt, a little wiser. It’s all grist for the mill now.

So I know The Bible pretty well, and I have dropped in a number of allusions, references and in-jokes that will probably go entirely unnoticed by the majority of readers. (And if you think that’s pointless, I have only this to say: The Luminaries and astrology.)

I brought the biblical characters to life with my tongue firmly in my cheek, and I had enormous fun poking aforesaid tongue at organised religion, and having a few digs at conventional concepts of God and Heaven and Hell what it means to be holy. I suspect some Happy Clappies (what I used to call Pentecostal Christians) and conservatives will accuse me of sacrilege and blasphemy, but let’s not lose sight of the overriding message of the book: that love is all that matters. And if that isn’t the most important spiritual message ever, then I don’t know what is.

I think God would approve. But he or she had better have a sense of humour, or there goes my afterlife.

Speaking of humour…the novel is a bit funny.

I hope it is. You never know, you see. What I think is funny may elicit nothing more than a raised eyebrow or a pursed lip. (Or fire and brimstone. See comments above re: Pentecostals.)

I did worry a bit about the humour, but not in a “Am I going to offend the Pope?” way. More in a “Is this really me?” way. If you read some of my published short stories, they’re quite grim, slice of life meditations, suffused with melancholy. My novel is quite different. It does, overall, have a lighter tone. There is still melancholy, and a bit of a preoccupation with death and longing and sadness, but those things just don’t…sing quite as loudly, because they’ve been joined by all the other voices in the choir: humour, hope, villainy, slapstick, excitement, love, longing, desire. Obviously a novel can run the full gamut of emotion in a way that a five-page story cannot. Add to that the necessity of sustaining a reader’s engagement for 80,000 words. It’s hard to do that when a novel is all darkness (or all light).

Besides, the novel is a reflection of who I am. I love a good laugh, and I’m great fun at a party (honest!) or a pub quiz (actually, not so much—too competitive), but I also love silence and my own company and I’m awkward in big crowds and I’m frightened, sometimes absurdly so, of uncertainty, and confrontation, and death. I’m not afraid to…how should I put this…luxuriate in my own melancholy from time to time. So my short stories are me, and this novel is me. I’m proud of both.

“This novel is me.” So how much of the novel is (obliquely and/or overtly) autobiographical?

None of it, and all of it. It’s a novel, which means it’s fiction. It’s a story. But, as any author knows, your self will sneak into your fiction no matter how loudly the wolves howl in an effort to keep it at bay (and no matter how vociferously you deny it). So, how much of me is in there?

A lot, is the answer, and some of that I see only in retrospect. I read it back now and I can see that, in a way, I have told the story of my life. My deepest longings, my regrets, my hidden shames, my desire to be a better person, my ache to connect, my relationship with my own parents, my fear of mortality, my fierce love for my daughter, my shaky half-belief in ultimate redemption…it’s all there. How could it not be?

I had no plan as I wrote my first draft; I just sat down every day and started typing and waited to see what would emerge. As it turns out, my heart did. Along with (I hope) a ripping good yarn.

Is Maurice (the main protagonist) based on your own father?

No. I see bits of myself in Maurice, actually. There are echoes of my father, though. He was an only child, and his best (and only) childhood friends were his books. I grew up in a house filled with books on every subject under the earth. They filled dozens of bookcases, various cupboards, boxes in the garage and even the space under the house. Dad has a particular penchant for the weird and esoteric. Horror, the supernatural, alien encounters, science fiction, witchcraft, bloody murder, deviant medieval practices…his bookshelves make for startling Sunday afternoon browsing. In fact, he used to wrap a number of books in brown paper so his parishioners wouldn’t see the titles when they came round for prayer meetings and Bible discussion groups.

He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of history and geography and weird and wonderful facts, and he’s turned his hand to writing too, in the past. He wrote a substantial science fiction story once. From memory, it was rather good.

Tell me about your writing method.

Ha! If only I had one! I wish I could say I write every day without fail, but I just don’t. I write when I can, and even then it’s in fits and starts.

As I mentioned above, I wrote much of the first draft free-flow—no plan, no outline, just the giddy excitement of “Where will this go today?” every time I sat down to write. Then I started getting stuck, losing track of ideas and threads and doddering about in the wilderness that is the mid-point of a messy first draft. So I pulled back, wrote a plot outline and a chapter plan, and with that “road map” to guide me, carried on. The more I wrote, and the more intricate the story became, the more I stepped back to plan my next move.

One of the most useful things I did was write a back story for Maurice. What was his upbringing like? Did his parents get on? What did he like to do as a child? What did he study at university? What was his earliest memory? By the time I had finished, I held him crystal clear in my mind. I felt like I knew him through and through, and writing him became a piece of cake. Why? Because I instinctively knew how he would react in any given situation. I knew his peculiarities, his likes and dislikes, his hopes and wishes and habits.

I did the same for Andrea, but not in quite so much detail, and perhaps as a result I have struggled more with writing her. I might go back and do a more thorough job of her back story, actually. Same goes for Kit, the young man Maurice befriends in Heaven. That will help me as I redraft (hopefully not much more!) and edit.

So the best piece of advice I could give to anyone who wants to write a novel is: Know your characters, know your characters, know your characters. The plot flows from your characters – not the other way round.

Next post: Interview With The Author #3

 

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