Today I am delighted to welcome Anna Chilvers for interview on my blog. Her second novel, Tainted Love (Bluemoose, 2016) has just been long-listed for The Guardian’s Not-the-Booker-Prize.
Her first novel, Falling Through Clouds (Bluemoose) was published in 2010. In 2012 she was writer in residence for the Watershed Landscape project and published a collection of short stories, Legging It (Pennine Prospects, 2012). In 2013 her play, The Room, was performed at the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival. Anna also writes and performs poetry. She teaches writing for WEA and independently.
I first met Ann when she gave a talk about completing a long distance walk from St Abbs to Ely, following the story of a seventh century woman, St Ethelreda (http://eastcoaststory2015.blogspot.co.uk/). This was in preparation for writing a novel (see below). She talked to me about not being able to fully encompass the ‘story’ of the walk except by turning it into fiction. She said: ‘It is by turning memories into fiction that we can make them easier to handle, to pass on, by capturing, perhaps, the essence rather than the full experience.’
‘It is time which does the sorting and sifting for us and helps us to select which details are significant,’ she continued. ‘If we want to move into fiction, or write a poem, basing our work on our experience, it is that essence, those ‘quick’ details, which will make our work alive, and also make it our own.’
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a novel with a working title of East Coast Story, which combines the story of Anglo-Saxon princess, St Etheldreda, with that of Jen, a girl in the present day. Etheldreda escaped from her husband, the king of Northumbria by travelling from St. Abbs in Scotland to Ely in Cambridgeshire, a journey of 500 miles. In 2015 I received a grant from the Arts Council to walk this journey in Etheldreda’s footsteps. I now has copious notes, bits of writing and photographs and my current task is to shape this into a novel.
What has inspired your most recent novel?
I have just published my second novel, Tainted Love. It has a playlist printed at the end of the book. One of the characters, Mr Lion, is a northern soul DJ and these are songs he plays at clubs in the north of England. They are also the songs that inspired the plot of my novel. Song lyrics are great for story lines. They tell us stories – My baby done left me – he’s a cheatin’ no good man – but they also carry the emotions of that story, distilled into a cry of sadness or joy – I’m gonna sing the blues or I’m on top of the world.
I made a cd of Northern Soul and Motown songs and listened to it whilst I was washing up or cutting vegetables. I thought about my characters, heard their voices coming out of the speakers. Sometimes they made me cry. Or maybe that was the onions. I wondered what had happened to them to make them feel that way and stories formed around them. But then while I chopped coriander and cleaned saucepan, the characters began to talk to each other. Across the songs they formed connections. Their stories touched and twined and became something else. I realised what I had was a novel.
That was a long tine ago now and Tainted Love has been through many drafts and revisions. As I wrote, and rewrote, more songs found their way onto the playlist, and the original list of fifteen or twenty expanded to the thirty-eight which are now listed in the book. At one point the song titles were used as chapter headings, but the novel began to stand up on its own – it no longer needed their support.
How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
Fiction is inspired by real life, but generally has more of a pattern, more obvious cause and effect. Real life events and experience provide a bank of material to draw from. It is the job of the fiction writer to form stories from this that satisfy the expectations of the reader. Real life isn’t always so accommodating.
Could you give five tips on how to tackle either characterisation or plotting or dialogue or descriptive passages?
Get to know your characters inside and backwards. Know what they have in their pockets, in their fridge. Know what happened to them at ten, at twenty, if they like cats. Even if none of this gets into your story.
Plot your story as you would an adventure. Have a final destination in mind, but be flexible, open to calls from unexpected directions.
It has been said that description is ‘the stuff you skip’. Don’t allow your reader to do that. Make sure description is necessary to your story and intertwined with action and dialogue.
Don’t write dialogue that is ‘on the nose’. Think about the difference between what is said and what is meant.
If you’re stuck, do something physical like walking, running, swimming. Don’t think about the writing problem. You will often find that your subconscious sorts it out for you whilst you’re busy doing something else.
How would you describe your writing process?
Lots of time pondering and thinking, allowing ideas to mature on their own in the recesses of my brain. Intense periods of writing activity, when I might get up at five in the morning to write every day for a few weeks. Exhilaration and self-doubt in equal measure. Leaving a first draft to stew for a good while before coming back with a serious editing head. Listening to the advice of trusted readers. Not being precious.
What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
Deadlines are great for getting work done, and best when someone else imposes them. All of the rest of life gets in the way. It’s always easy to prioritise other things and other people’s needs.
What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
I like to visit places I’m writing about if possible. Though sometimes it’s the other way round and I write about places I have visited. Recently I got a readers’ pass for the British Library and spent a couple of days there doing research, which was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I loved it there and would happily move in.
What are your thoughts on your publishing route?
In my experience independent publishers have more time to spend with their authors, working on editing and presentation. They are also more willing to take risks. Bluemoose are brilliant at marketing and promotion as well, and do everything they can to push the books once they are out in the world. The relationship I have with my publishers is a personal one. I haven’t had the experience of being published by a mainstream publisher, but guess that in terms of the company an individual writer would be a much smaller cog. I am very happy with my publisher.
How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
Tainted Love is available from Bluemoose: https://bluemoosebooks.com/books/tainted-love