Why Ever Did I Want to Write: Patchwork of a writing life

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?
This is covered comprehensively in my memoir Why Ever Did I Want to Write. I can identify three different stages in my young life during which my passion for writing unfolded and emerged. Firstly, chance played a role. Aged 11, I was given a five-year diary. I wrote regularly in bouts, but then skipped months and years. The book is quite full, but the entries come from a dozen different years, right up until 1974, when I was in my early 20s, which is when I started travelling and writing a diary more consistently. Secondly, there was some kind of inner stimulus. While travelling in New Zealand I found myself writing poems into my diary, and while in South America I began composing, also for the diary, very short fictional stories, often inspired by characters and events around me. It was as though I wanted or needed to record a deeper, richer set of thoughts and responses to my daily experiences, and the wider range of thoughts, ideas, imaginations that came with them. Thirdly, I made an intellectual decision: of all the art forms (and I was trying a few), I decided, writing was the most interesting, useful and challenging. And I didn’t want to set myself any minor challenge.

How often do you write?
I write every day, either in my own diary, or for my diary websites. One of them – The Diary Review – is hosted by Blogger, though it’s not really a blog. Twice a week on average, I write a longish article about someone who was (or is) a diarist, and include substantial extracts from his or her diaries. These are journalistic articles, and fairly easy to compose, but I love the research. If I’m working on a fiction book, which I find much harder, then I will try and write most days, but it doesn’t always pan out that way.

Writers are often associated with loner tendencies; is there any truth to that?
I think some writers – and I would include myself – can profit hugely from periods alone, when they allow the clutter of every day life, however exciting or banal, to abate, thus giving new and or/creative ideas time and space to fill the void of mental activity. There’s no better way for me personally to find fresh ideas for a plot than to get my hiking boots on and go walking – but it has to be somewhere familiar, or else my mind might kick into explorer mode. Certainly, when I was younger, going away and isolating myself for a while seemed the right thing to do. In fact, in my new memoir I explain how I went to live in Corsica alone one winter, just to write. It proved a cathartic time!

Which book inspired you to begin writing?
Well, this is a roundabout story. I had been writing for years in my diary, I’d started to write short stories, and I’d also written a play (never produced), but it was one particular performance that jump-started my decision to write more seriously. The performance was Cruel Garden, choreographed by Christopher Bruce in collaboration with Lindsay Kemp, and danced by Ballet Rambert. It told, in a thrillingly dramatic way, of the life of Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet and dramatist who was murdered in 1936, drawing on his most famous play, Blood Wedding. On returning home, I got out my Remington typewriter, and proceeded to write a first substantial piece of prose fiction, and I called it Cruel Garden. My Cruel Garden – a somewhat fabular piece of stream of consciousness writing – had nothing to do with Lorca nor did it bear any similarity to the Rambert production. Looking at the piece today, I can see far more about my subconscious state of mind than I realised at the time. But this was the moment when I decided that writing was what I wanted to do. Further similar bizarre, symbol-strewn and poetical stories followed. The astounding thing about Rambert’s ‘Cruel Garden’ and its pivotal impact on my life is that nearly two decades later I met the man – Ian Gibson – who wrote the book (The Death of Lorca) which had inspired Lindsay Kemp to devise the ballet. I was in Spain, near Granada, staying with friends. One of them mentioned that her cousin lived nearby, in Restabal, and that we’d been invited to a party at his house. The cousin turned out to be Gibson, who was then already working on his now-famous biography of Salvador Dali. He was somewhat taken aback, not at my tale of literary inspiration, but of the gushing manner in which I told it.

Do you read any of your own work?
I do. This seems very indulgent, and even egotistical, but I’m a great fan of my own writing. Whereas many people trash their young diaries, for example, I love mine, and I’ve used them extensively in my memoir. I have scores and scores of short stories that I wrote when I was in my 20s. They weren’t published, and they are not very good, but, can I bring myself to dump them, burn them? No, it’s like they are a part of me, and I can’t let them go.

How realistic are your books?
I like this question because it gives me a chance to mention my trilogy Not a Brave New World. It’s a first person narrative, an autobiography, written by Kip Fenn, only months away from his chosen death day. Born on the eve of the year 2000, he has lived throughout the 21st century . . . so writing his autobiography required me to invent elements of future history for the world, as well as for Kip’s family, friends, work, social world. But there’s not a touch of science fiction in the book. I find it very difficult to engage with what is called post-apocalyptic fiction, when sometimes it’s only 20 or 40 years in the future, and I was very determined to write about what could actually happen to the world over the next 100 years. . . go to your favourite bookshop, or the library, and try to find such books, novels set in the near future, with REALISTIC political and social commentary and ideas. You won’t have much luck.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?
I do read a lot. My reading habits have changed hugely over the years. When I was younger I read a lot of fiction, hungry to find out about the world, people, relationships, philosophies, moralities. . . Fowles, Hesse, Huxley, Borges, Marquez, Lawrence Durrell, Hemingway, George Eliot, Laurence, Shakespeare, Shaw, Dickens . . . Today, I am still drawn to top-class literature, but I don’t find it very often, and I tend to read for entertainment mostly . . . I am a big fan of John Le Carré, for example, Scott Turow and Robertson Davies – writers who give us strong and intriguing characters, and superb stories. All time favourite? Probably Lawrence Durrell. His Alexandria Quartet and Avignon Quintet absolutely entranced me – no writing, for me, has ever quite matched his magical literary weaving.

Can you tell us about your current projects?
I do intend to write a second memoir, to carry on from where Why Ever Did I Want to Write ends (with the birth of my first son). Whereas the first memoir is about my childhood, finding my place in the world, and how I came to want to be a writer, a second book will be much more about WHAT I wrote and why. It will also tell of my being a parent for the first time (I have one adult son, Adam, as well as two young ones), though I may have a tough negotiation on my hands vis-a-vis Adam’s views on what I publish. But I’ve yet to start on that book. Much further along the pipeline is a novel, nearly finished, entitled The Blue Toothbrush. Here’s my one sentence pitch: The Blue Toothbrush is a contemporary novel, intelligent and disquieting, with a comic anti-hero who tells the story of his rise to celebrity status and his fall to living on the streets, all thanks to a toothbrush, a blue toothbrush.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?
I’ve spent much of my life working as a journalist and editor, and so, yes, I do proofread and edit my own material. I don’t much enjoy it, especially on the third or fourth read through . . . family members help, and often spot the glaring errors I’ve missed three times over.

Do you enjoy discussing upcoming ideas with your partner? If yes, how much do you value their inputs?
Definitely, and absolutely.

Do you encourage your children to read?
Absolutely. I’ve two young boys 10 and 7, and they’ve been read to daily since they were babies. They are both huge readers now but still love it when I read to them. More than that though, I’ve made up many stories for them over the years. I usually write them a carefully-constructed story for their birthdays, but I also make up stories on the way to school, or when out walking in the countryside, simply on the basis of a couple of words they give me.

Do you reply back to your fans and admirers personally?
Yes, always. I’ve had most feedback from two books in the psychogeography genre. I wrote both of them specifically to publish directly and freely online. I devised this idea of walking across Greater London in as near a straight line as possible, and writing about the walk in street-by-street detail. I found a South-North route, along the 300 easting, which took me through the very centre of the city (and through the middle of British Museum which has a back exit!) and spent a couple of months walking the 30 mile route in sections. I called the book London Cross – it’s still online – and received lots of emails, mostly from people who had a connection with the areas I’d walked through. Some while later, I did a similar, much shorter walk and online book for the city of Brighton, where I live now (Brighton Cross). This, too, brought in welcome emails. And it was always a pleasure replying to correspondents.

Have you ever taken any help from other writers?
Oh yes. I recall, some long while ago, taking part in a writer’s workshop one weekend, part of the annual Brighton Festival. Tony Masters, a lovely man now sadly departed, was intent on sharing his love of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. In particular he was keen to explain how writing could be enriched by a sense of place – just like Greene’s novel. We embarked on a tour of Brighton Rock sites, and then were encouraged to spend a couple of hours working up a short story, to be finished later and submitted for a modest prize. I wrote a story based around the funfair on the pier, and, in particular, the iconic helter skelter. Weeks later, I received a cheque for £50 – the only literary prize I’ve ever won. However, many years later I met one of the Brighton Festival organisers, and she remember the competition and that only one story had ever been submitted!

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