In which conditions does your writing come into being/flourish? Does mood play a role?
For many years, I believed that I had to wait for the ‘right conditions’ in order for my writing to flourish, or indeed to happen at all. This is the reason why it took me such a long time to commit to my creative writing – I had some abstract notion that the ideal writing conditions needed to come along and that they included huge chunks of free time, the absence of a ‘to-do list’, a clean house and unlimited peace and quiet. I realised eventually that if I was to wait for those conditions to arise then I’d never write a single word. So gradually, over the years I have learned to write under less than perfect conditions. I think I understand now that for any creative endeavor, waiting is folly. ‘The water does not flow until you turn on the tap.’ I now tell my students what it took me a long time to learn: Write before you’re ready to write. Don’t wait for the perfect day, the perfect notebook, the perfect desk, the perfect moment, the perfect idea. Because if you wait for those things or if you wait until you think you’re ready, you may never write at all.
Which conditions are detrimental to the right concentration?
While I have learned to write in many different contexts (on trains, at bus stops, in the kitchen, in bed). I also have learned that even though I often don’t come to my writing until the end of a long working day, still it doesn’t pay to leave all my writing to the times when I am least relaxed and least alert. Writing while physically or mentally tired is possible and I’ve often done it, but if I get stuck, or if I feel blocked, or if I start taking shortcuts then it’s a signal that I need to rest. Fatigue can make small problems or plot puzzles seem like insurmountable challenges. Two of my favourite cures for minor writers’ blocks such as these are a good night’s sleep and a decent cup of coffee.
Does the unconscious come into play, and if so, how? Could you give an example of how something gestated over a certain time? Do the best passages come (un)intentionally?
As an academic who has been trained in objective research methods and the application of conscious, cognitive, deliberate techniques to my work, it took me a long time to learn to trust the role that the subconscious plays in the development of story. It’s important to believe in the extraordinary role of the subconscious in storytelling. I’m a careful planner whenever I’m involved in an academic project, but in the case of my creative writing, I’ve learned that too much planning can stifle the natural emergence of the stories inside us. And I think I’ve become better at allowing a story to unfold and to be more comfortable with the idea that we are not in full control of our creative processes. Stories are deep within us. A lot of creative work is about silencing the chattering of the conscious mind, to let stories bubble up to the surface, allow our deeply buried ideas to emerge.
Is there a specific childhood memory that is still alive in your work?
Because I write for children and young adults, I do work hard to channel my own childhood self and my early memories. My childhood was very free and rather wild. I spent lots of time camping and boating with my three brothers, and unlike children of today, much of my free time was unsupervised, setting the scene for some great adventures, hazards and discoveries. As I think about it, these are the perfect conditions for drama and I’m sure have helped my storytelling in all sorts of different ways. Place and setting also play a huge role, and because I grew up by the sea, coastal settings seem always to recur or to want to appear in my stories. More generally though, I also work hard to remember how the life of a teenager is often so very intense and deeply felt. It’s a unique time in life where people stand on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. It’s often struck me that teenagers have an authenticity and a passion that many of us lose over the years. For me, writing is a way of revisiting that extraordinary stage of life and of remembering the experiences and feelings that formed me, and the lessons I learned.
Which is your favourite genre and why?
I can’t claim to have a favourite genre, and I like to read as widely as I can, but I must confess that from a very young age, the concept of time travel has been an obsession. I’ve been inspired by a whole range of time travel stories including The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, Dr Who and Back to the Future, and more. In many ways time travel to me is the ultimate storytelling device. I used it as a central aspect of my first novel Back to Blackbrick, which is about a boy whose beloved grandfather is losing his memory. The boy finds a way to go back to the time of his grandfather’s childhood to reclaim important parts of his history. I loved writing that book and after I’d finished it, for a long time I thought I’d never be able to write a story that didn’t have time travel in it! But I suppose when you think about it, every novel is like a mini Tardis, whisking us off to a different place and time, allowing us to imagine the world from a different and new perspective.
Gender and writing
It’s often been said that writing is a very gendered process for all sorts of reasons. It’s true that many of the women writers I talk to often struggle to legitimise time and space for their creative work. The lack of regard for women’s writing, (for example in the compilation of many anthologies in which women’s writing is absent or underrepresented) is troubling too, and there is lots of evidence to show that compared to male writers, it is harder for women writers both to do their work, and to be taken seriously as writers when they’ve done it. These challenges do worry and affect me. I think part of the response is to keep writing, and keep finding ways to do one’s best work. We may not be able to dismantle in one fell swoop the structural inequalities that make writing more challenging for women but we can promote and support women’s writing, show solidarity and respect for people’s work regardless of their gender or background, and highlight the ways and places in which support is needed.
What is the purpose of writing for you?
Storytelling and fiction writing is a very comforting process for me. With all its trials and difficulties and struggles, writing stories is ultimately my way of imposing meaning on the chaos of life and of making sense of the world.