I’ve been invited by my dear friend and fellow writer Virginia Moffatt to contribute to this blog tour and she has very kindly agreed to host me on her site. I have to admit, though, I feel a bit of a fraud. At the moment I’m not doing much writing. As with many writers, my need to earn a living means I talk about writing an awful lot, as a creative writing lecturer at the University of Winchester and director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival www.writersfestival.co.uk.
So here are my answers to the four questions I’ve been asked. I’m going to have to dig deep!
What am I working on?
That kind of depends on timeframe. I write lots of nonfiction for children and this year is no exception with two series to complete before September. I am absolutely committed to excellence in nonfiction for young audiences and I’ve written nearly 50 books now but that’s not what I’m going to talk about here because usually I write nonfiction to a very tight brief from the publisher.
A while ago I finished a children’s novel called Ruthie Bow and the Lady Spirit Detective about which I care passionately but it has not yet found a publishing home.
Then there are the pieces of short fiction I write whenever I’m pushed to do a reading at the University or with the Hyde Writers – a group of wonderful novelists, poets and critics who support each other locally. My last two pieces were called ‘Mole’ and ‘Snegurochka’ and I had some fun with them.
Yet what really fills my head and my heart at the moment is a novel for adults that is starting to take shape in frustratingly short fragments on the page. The novel is set in Kiev in 1993. Current events in Independence Square have gripped me and horrified me over the past few weeks, but I’ve been trying to find a way to write fictionally about Kiev for the past decade and I’m reaching back to a time shortly after that initial declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, when journalists held their breath but for ordinary Ukrainians, so little had changed. The novel is told from the point of view of an English woman who goes there with her baby and the woman is like me, up to a point, as I lived there with my journalist husband and our baby son from 1993-94. It is a story, imagined, about the interrelatedness of people I glimpsed but rarely spoke to, lived next door to but never shared a meal with. The boy who spends his days rollerblading across the floor of the apartment above. The caretaker who sniffs an empty box of imported After Eights she’s retrieved from the bottom of the dump bin. The white goods importer with the Astrakhan hat who wants to give this nervous young mother a washing machine. I want to write about moral ambiguity, about history never being finished, about the ownership of apples and a desperate obsession with the novel Jurassic Park.
How does my work differ from others in the genre?
Genre is an interesting question when it comes to my Kiev novel. I think I absorb a great deal from the fiction I read, in terms of structure, brevity, dialogue, what isn’t said and so forth. I suppose where I hope it might differ is that while it is about motherhood (many kinds) it isn’t merely ‘domestic’ in that unfortunately pejorative sense. Domestic can be, and often is, universal.
Why do I write what I do?
I write about what interests me. That’s about it!
How does my writing process work?
I wish I could say something sensible here. Zadie Smith, in her brilliantly titled book of essays Changing My Mind, divides writers up into two kinds: micro managers and macro planners. I always thought I was a micro manager. I’d start with very little idea of where I was going, discovering the story as I went along but never able to progress until I felt that the last sentence I’d written was as good as I could make it. Now I’m not so sure. The switch to writing a novel for adults means I’m starting all over again and I find it quite terrifying! Nevertheless, with this novel I do have an ending. The final pages are already real for me, so instead I find myself writing out of sequence, creating small scenes as key moments form during that marvellous thought factory, the daily dog walk. I’ve not settled on tense, or voice, or even point of view yet, and this is quite a different way of working and one that I wouldn’t, on the whole, recommend to my own students but then I’ve never been much of a believer in writing ‘rules’. That’s why we have drafts.
I like to think I’d be more productive if I had a weekly word count to hit. I’d love a magical shed like Joanne Harris, or a deadline to hurtle towards. Instead I write fitfully, slowly, over months and years. It’s not good, but I tell myself this is infinitely better than never writing at all.
Oh, and oddly, I type straight onto my laptop. I’m left-handed and never really learned to hold a pen comfortably!
Next week I’m passing the blog tour mantle to Claire Fuller, novelist, sculptor and long-time friend whose debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, publishes next year under Penguin imprint Fig Tree and around the world. I feel privileged to have read the manuscript – taut and subtly terrifying. Also quite beautiful. The novel to read in 2015.