Your stories tend to have a fantasy element but also frequently feature real-life protagonists. To what extent do you draw on real-life experiences and how much is purely invention?
I write about what I know, which probably sounds weird when you consider most of my stories have some kind of supernatural element. I’ve experienced a lot of pain in my life, a lot of adversity, but also a lot of love and joy and hope. I think that writing should reflect real life in the sense that it gives us an opportunity to explore thoughts and feelings – not only our own, but those that are common to all of humanity.
So, how much is purely invention? In terms of what my characters think and feel, very little. In many ways my stories are a way for me to explore the world and clarify my own thinking. The supernatural or fantasy element of my writing also comes from what I know. I spent a lot of years holed up in the Warburg Institute, trawling through old books, and the British Library, working with medieval manuscripts. The medieval period still had magic. It still had something a little unknown. We know so much about the world now, about how things work, but I think that means there’s an emptiness to it. The last wonder for me is nature, which is why I spend so much time in it and why I love to write about it. I think the balance of the world is a bit off right now – too much humanity, not enough nature. We are destroying what we have and we are beginning to pay the price (Covid was a great example of that). I like to imagine what would happen if that was different. So there’s an element of reality there too.
Do you have a strict regime for writing or is it just a case of writing as and when the ideas come?
Definitely no strict regime for writing, but I’m always thinking about writing. I’m thinking about old projects and new projects and often a mixture of both. Sometimes phrases or ideas will just come to me and they get jotted down in my notebook or in my phone. This is how stories come to me. I also have very vivid dreams (I take a lot of medications) and some of my stories started off that way too. I rarely sit down and just try to write (at least fiction). I write non-fiction throughout the year in the form of articles and these do require a bit of planning and a stricter approach (usually because I’m doing research or writing on topical issues), but my fictional work is always about emotion primarily, so it comes when it comes.
(And do you work on multiple projects simultaneously or do you focus on one until completion and then move on?)
The answer to this one is obviously ‘yes’. I work on fiction and non-fiction, short stories and there are a couple of novels that have been kicking around for a few years now. I pull them out periodically and work on them some more. Hopefully one day they will be finished and I can let them go out into the world.
Do you prefer short stories or novels/novellas?
I’m finding increasingly that I prefer short stories and novellas. There’s a precision to writing shorter pieces that gets lost in the novel. I think anything over 30,000 words allows you to waffle on. One could make an argument about character development, but I think it’s the things that are left unsaid that are the most important part of storytelling. I don’t want to be told everything. I want to imagine the bigger picture for myself. Short stories and novellas are harder to write, because there is often more cutting than writing, but I do think it makes me more focused and I enjoy the challenge of it.
Do you have certain themes you revisit? Themes you either write a whole host of different stories on or might even consider writing a continuing series of consecutive stories with the same characters?
Definitely. The recurring these for me are always the same; love, loss, hope, pain, struggle. Life, basically. But not life in the modern world. I have enough of that in my day job (I work in mental health).
I used to be more set towards writing series with the same characters and expanding their worlds over multiple stories, but then I realised just how boring I find that as a reader. You know when you pick up the first book in a series and it just captures you? You love the world, the characters, the way the author writes and you just become immersed. That’s wonderful. But then you read book two and you begin learning a bit more about it all and then you read book three, because you’re committed to the story and the characters and you want to find out how the story ends. Then comes book four and book five and on and on… And somehow it just gets diluted along the way; the story and the initial excitement. Somehow you’re now invested in the series for the wrong reasons.
I’m going to use one of my favourite TV shows as an example of this. I love ‘Supernatural’. It came out when I was just starting uni and I was studying all this stuff about demons and demonology and folklore. The Latin in it was accurate, the exorcisms were based on real texts and nothing quite like it had been on TV before. It was supposed to have a five season arc and it had a perfect ending at season five, but then it continued. For another ten seasons and it was just more of the same. Rehashed, diluted and so much less than it could have been if it was just left where it was supposed to finish.
This happens all the time now with both books and television. The sequels and the prequels. The continued search for more money. It does everyone a disservice; the writers, the readers, the creators and the audiences. It’s just sad.
So I would say ‘no’ now to a series. I think when you do that you lose the magic. The most I would ever continue one story over is two books now, but even that feels like it might be one book too long.
Going back to my initial question - with real-life experiences, do you write as a way of dealing with, or explaining, or simply relating these events?
I write as a way of exploring them. You know, I’m thirty five now and I wake up every day and wonder how I got here. The days and the years just pass on by and I still don’t think I know much more now than I did when I was eleven. Sometimes I think I know less.
And if so, how do you think it helps?
I think writing gives things context. It allows me to explore ‘best versions’ of myself and others. It also allows me to explore ‘worst versions’. You know people are pretty terrible. They do terrible things to themselves and others. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of that, I’ve seen some of it. I’ve supported others who have inflicted it or had to deal with the fall-out from it. The human experience is pretty rough. But I’ve also seen and experienced the good stuff too. I’ve seen people do remarkable things for others. I’ve experienced kindness and love and generosity.
So, I think writing is cathartic in that way. You get to make sense of all the messy every day experiences and put them into some kind of context. You get to write about the grey, rather than just the black and white.
(So is writing fun for you?)
I enjoy the challenge of it, but I also think it’s a kind of impulse for me. There isn’t always intentionality to it; it’s often more of a compulsion. It can be fun. It can also be draining and I do find it takes me a while to summon up the energy to dive back into a big project, but inevitably I always end up back there, typing away…
Is there any genre you'd absolutely rule out writing in?
I don’t think so. I can’t see me doing anything that’s set in our contemporary society, because, quite frankly, it bores me living in it, so why would I want to write about it? Writing is partly an escape from this reality, I really don’t want to spend any more time in it if I don’t have to. I’m open to most genres though. To be honest, I don’t ever really plan a genre. When a story comes from me I write and that’s that. Whatever genre it is, it is.
(And is there anything you'd never subject your protagonists to?)
Gratuitous violence. I’m thinking of films like ‘Saw’ here. Just why? What’s the point? I’m also not madly keen on books that depict rape and sexual assault. It’s shit in real life, so why write about it? I especially hate it when male authors write about it being inflicted on female characters. You have no idea what that experience does to a woman, so why would you think it’s ok for you to write about it? Just because ‘it happens in real life’ or it ‘happened during that historical period’ doesn’t mean you have to include it. I like my books kind of PG. I guess to some extent I still have the reading preferences of a primary school child. I think I generally have the life preferences of a primary school child; walks in nature, hours spent hanging out with horses and other animals, reading a good fairy story, eating something tasty and going to bed early.
So what would I never subject my protagonists to? Anything that was graphically and pointlessly violent. Yes, I obviously include violence here and there and there is an element of adversity and peril in everything that I write, but it’s more about the moral question for me. How does the protagonist react when put under pressure?
You could argue that the really violent stuff is pressure and, yes, it is, but during my day job I help pick up the pieces from that. And what it does to people sucks.
Short answer – nothing gratuitous.
Winding up - happy endings? Should it always work out well at the end?
You know, this is an interesting one. Personally I think no, it shouldn’t, because life doesn’t, but I submitted a novel to a publisher that didn’t have a happy ending and you know what the feedback was from the editor? ‘I don’t know what the point was in me reading it. It left me with a sense of hopelessness, as if the whole thing was pointless.’ To me that was the point. Life is messy and painful and often ends badly, so, no, I definitely don’t think it should always work out well in the end.
Sometimes it does and I’m not against a happy ending, but I don’t think stories should have to end well.
Then again, I guess if you want to sell books to publishers it probably should…
Last two I have to ask: Who inspired you as a reader and a writer?
I love Stephen Donaldson, but not so much his ‘Covenant’ chronicles or the ‘Gap’ series. Not because his writing isn’t brilliant in those, they just don’t resonate as strongly with me as my favourite duology ‘Mordant’s Need’. This is basically just an adult fairy story and I love it for that. A TV adaption of this would be amazing. It’s a little dated and Terisa Morgan could do with a bit of an update, but the plot is wonderful. The only thing I dislike about the way he writes is he includes graphic rape and sexual violence and, as I said earlier, I just don’t think it’s necessary to make it explicit on the page.
I also love Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’. That to me is a shining example of what a novella should be. It’s gross in parts, but the writing is fabulous.
Tolkien and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was an early favourite for me. I read ‘The Hobbit’ at the end of primary school and TLOTR trilogy shortly after. Tolkien writes beautifully. Anyone who thinks the books are just about elves and dwarves and orcs has totally missed the point. And, you know what, no graphic violence or rape anywhere…
A guilty pleasure is ‘Pride and Prejudice’. So funny.
I’ve read widely over the years; anything from Lee Child and Stephen King to Martina Cole and Charlaine Harris. I read classics and then medieval studies at university, so I’ve read many of the greats (in no particular order); Dante, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Milton, Chaucer, Euripides, Aquinas… I enjoy Shakespeare (particularly ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Macbeth’). Really I’ll read bits and bobs of everything and anything.
But I enjoy folklore and fairy tales the most. I like the strangeness of them. They just feel a little bit ‘off’ in an indefinable way and I love that. They are always snippets and never complete. That’s what I enjoy the most about them. The reader gets a general outline of the story, but is left to make up most of the details themselves. They are obviously my biggest influence and inspiration.
I also enjoy film and TV as a form of story-telling. ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is a thing of beauty, for instance. And I actually really love ‘The Boys’ at the moment, which completely contradicts what I’ve previously said about rape and graphic violence, but it’s done in a totally self-conscious way. It’s a mirror to everything that is wrong with modern culture, rather than just another part of it. I think it’s one of the smartest things I’ve seen on TV for a long time. It’s totally self-aware.
Things that make me think and feel are what inspire me most as both a reader and a writer.
Any advice for potential or nascent writers out there?
Only this trite little snippet… If you want to write, then just start writing. Don’t be too self-conscious about it. Some of it will be crap, but some of it will be good and even if it’s not, the process of creativity is so important for mental health that’s it’s worth investing time in, even if you never publish a word of it.
Write for yourself, don’t write for anyone else.