Thursday, April 03, 2008
Author Interview, Daniel Clay
I am thrilled and honoured to have Daniel Clay here as my very first author interview. He patiently went through all 20 questions I put to him and wrote some really good responses. Here they are, unabridged.
I hope you enjoy them.
Your “Why I Write” article on Fifth Estate is what first alerted me to your forthcoming book, Broken being published. Following on from that article, do you think writers are born, as opposed to someone deciding to write to become the next massive best seller, and thereby trying to learn the craft, following some of the formulae you see set out in “How To” books?
I’m not sure either scenario is true for the vast majority of writers. For me, I started out with the urge to write rather than the ability to write and I’d say that’s the most important thing – it might have taken me years to get to a publishable standard, but if there’s someone out there of my age who was born with more natural talent than I was but no urge to do anything about it, then which of us has had the luckier break?
If you’ve always had the urge to write but don’t feel you’re making progress, I’d say there are different ways you can try to improve rather than throwing in the towel because you don’t feel blessed with enough natural talent. How-to books are good and I do think it’s important to read a selection of them, but, for me, trying to follow them took a lot of the fun out of writing and there was a stage when I almost gave up because I was sick of trying to stick to a bunch of rules that I didn’t necessarily agree with. I firmly believe the best people to learn from are the writers you love to read yourself. They’re obviously doing something that works for you as a reader, so if you can understand how they’re doing it and try to import their values into your own writing, the chances are you’ll improve much more than you would from any how-to book. Everything else is patience, time, writing stuff that excites you, luck, and not giving up.
What made you write Broken?
The basic premise was to take the family structures in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and see how they’d interact with each other today. I’d read Mockingbird the previous summer and kept thinking, what sort of novel would Harper Lee write if she was sitting down to write it today, after living the life that I’ve lived? What would Scout Finch be like with a modern ‘one-parent’ up-bringing? What would the welfare state do to Boo Radley? How would those characters impact on each other today? This is why so many of the names in Broken echo the character names in To Kill A Mockingbird, because I wanted this starting point to be clear.
Looking back at your completed novel, is there anything in there you regret having to leave out or realising that you had to put it in, in the final draft?
There were plenty of passages that I felt were very powerful pieces of writing that never made the published novel, but I don’t have any regrets about taking them out. It’s good to have fun when you’re writing the first draft and allow yourself to go off in different directions, but once that stage is over it’s important to think about what’s best for the overall novel and the characters in it – not to mention the reader. In terms of regretting anything I left in, no. When I read Broken through for final sign off, I was really pleased with the way it had turned out and felt it was the best I could do.
Will any of your friends and family recognise shades of themselves in your work?
I don’t think so, no, and they’re making a mistake if they do. There’s bits of me in it – Mr Jeffries’ frustrations over his career when he gives his ‘life’ speech were very much my frustrations at the time – but my friends and family escaped Broken unscathed.
How has your life changed since Broken has been published?
I’ve been able to give up my day job for a spell to concentrate on writing, which is fantastic, as that’s always been a dream. The most positive change, though, is that I always used to worry I was being selfish or unreasonable by putting so much time into trying to improve my writing, and that pressure’s been lifted now. I also used to worry that people thought I was wasting my time and being a bit of a dreamer, but I don’t feel anyone can accuse me of that anymore.
I found, whilst reading Broken that you have a very keen satirical eye for current affairs. Did you have to hone it, specifically for the novel or is it something you find comes naturally to you?
I think it’s something that comes naturally to me as a person – I don’t have a lot of faith in human nature or authority and my sense of humour is dry and can be sarcastic – but it’s not something that comes naturally to me as a writer and I had to work on getting that aspect of my attitude into Broken.
Do you write at home, and if so – is it in ordered chaos or pristine contemplation?
When I wrote Broken I did so in my study at home (it’s a box-room with a PC in it really!) and on a lap-top in my lunch hour in the staff canteen at work (a bit awkward when you’re writing strip-poker scenes between drunken fifteen year olds, not to mention some of the other stuff that goes on in Broken and other novels I’ve written). Our house is quite neat most of the time and I tend to listen to music through head-phones whenever I write, so I’m not sure if that classes as ordered chaos or pristine contemplation. Maybe a little of both.
Do you have specific times during the day which you write?
At the time I wrote Broken, I’d try to write as much as I could before work (sometimes an hour; quite often just ten or so minutes), every lunch-hour at work, ten till midnight every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and as much as I could at the weekends. I’m not sure how often I managed to stick to this, but these were the targets I set myself. I do think, though, if you’re working for a living, trying to write in your spare time, and trying to lead some sort of normal day to day life, that you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much if you don’t always stick to your writing targets. Any time spent writing is great. Any time not spent writing is experience for when you manage to get back to it.
At the moment, I take myself off to a library each week day to write, but also try to write in my spare time as well. When I have to go back to a day job, I’ll try to get back to the above routine.
Writing is a lonely job. Did you find that you had to make a concerted effort to break away from it to be social with friends and family, fearing that you might turn into someone on the fringes, only ever observing?
I’ve never really had that fear because I’ve always had a tendency to feel a bit like that anyway, but when I was trying to write and hold down a day-job, it was easy to see time spent with family and friends as time that could have been better spent writing. In those terms, there were times when I had to be realistic about how much time it was fair to disappear for. Luckily, my wife likes a lot of her own space, and is often glad to see the back of me.
How much of your story did you know when you sat down to write Broken?
Very little, and it took at least three months of messing around before it all started to fall into place. As an example of how little I knew, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know Skunk was narrating the story from a hospital bed until about a month before I finished the first draft. I always knew she was in trouble, but not what the trouble was or where she was telling her story from.
How did you celebrate the good news when the firm offer for publishing your book came through?
I was at work when I found out. Very few people there knew I wrote and no one knew I had a novel under submission, so I went outside and telephoned my wife to tell her what had happened, then, at lunch time, went to a pub on my own and had a pint of Stella to celebrate. Sad, aren’t I?
In your article, Coping With Rejection, you make several valid points about writers having to be stubborn and to believe in their work, to keep polishing it and not to give up. However, do you think you would have reached a threshold at some stage, had the rejections for Broken continued?
I hope not, no, but I think there would have been times when I didn’t write as constantly as I had been doing for the eight or so years before Broken sold.
I’m quite confident I would have carried on because, by the time I wrote Broken, I was already at a stage where I was only willing to write what interested me rather than if I thought I could sell it – if it felt right to start working on it, I didn’t then think, what genre is it, what’s the market, who are my readers, what publishing house is it aimed at? That was a very liberating decision to come to, and I probably wouldn’t have started to write Broken if I’d sat down and tried to tick all these boxes with my original idea. If you’re going to give over a lot of your spare time to writing, you have to make sure you’re doing stuff that excites you and makes it feel worth your while rather than trying to follow some sort of ‘getting published’ template.
Have you started on anything else since handing in Broken?
I have, yes.
How much do you plot when deciding to write or do you let the story take you where it will?
I do plot a lot, but mostly in terms of who the characters are and a few separate events that will happen to them throughout the novel. I like to have an end in mind, but rarely stick to it once I get started – if it feels right to move away from whatever I was originally thinking, then I do, but I’m not scared to go back to it either if things start to go a bit wrong. I also tend to make a lot of longhand notes before and during the time I spend writing, and then hardly ever bother to look at them. I think they just help me to think.
In all the books that you’ve read, either fiction or non-fiction, what are your favourites and which do you wish you had written?
There are so many. In terms of imagination, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld stands out. In terms of wishing I’d written it, probably Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, although I haven’t read that in quite a few years now, so might change my mind if I did. Jonathan Trigell’s Boy A is probably the most recent novel I’ve read where I’ve really wished it was my name on the cover; Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin stands out in that respect too.
Do you have a favourite genre?
No. I tend to like novels that rise above their genre or don’t have one in the first place. The Exorcist, to me, is much more than a horror novel. I think Jaws is much more than a beast v man novel as well. I wouldn’t like to categorise One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or Boy A or We Need To Talk About Kevin. They’re just novels I loved to read. If someone said, you must read this novel, I wouldn’t think ‘no way, it’s sci-fi or romance, etc.’ and turn my nose up at it.
If someone came into a bookshop where you worked, how would you sell Broken to them?
I probably wouldn’t be able to. I’m terrible at promoting myself. If someone had a gun to my head, though, while I was doing my shift behind the counter (my agent or editor, for instance) I’d probably say something like ‘this is a really gripping contemporary read, full of characters you’re going to recognise and emphasise with, and available in 3 for 2’.
Do you ever get writers block and how do you overcome it?
Not really writer’s block, but I get periods where I know I’m not writing as well as I should be writing; the expressions that matter aren’t there and I don’t believe in the scenes or characters I’m creating. I just tend to keep on going as sometimes it’s not quite as bad as I think and, even if it is, at some stage I tend to write myself out of it and then just go back and redraft. I also get periods where I don’t want to do any new writing, I just want to polish what I’ve already done to the point where I’m no longer making improvements, I’m just changing words here and there that don’t really make any difference. If this gets really ridiculous, I split writing sessions so half has to be on new stuff, and half can then be on polishing.
I think Broken can be made into an excellent mini-series. You only have to look at the good quality shows currently doing the rounds, Skins, Ashes to Ashes, to name a few. If you had to cast the main characters in Broken, do you have any actors that immediately come to mind?
I’m afraid I don’t, no, but Broken has recently been optioned by BBC Films, so maybe one day we’ll get to see a casting director’s take on who should play who.
Did you attend any writing courses and what is your opinion about them?
I did a Writers’ News correspondence course in my mid twenties and I’ve attended the Winchester Writers’ Conference on and off over the past eleven years, as well as several one off events at different times. I’ve got very mixed feelings about them. They can be great if you get someone who understands what you’re about as a writer (I’ve had some really good advice and encouragement) but they can be an absolute nightmare if you get someone who rips your stuff to shreds on the basis of a few pages and a synopsis. This happened to me with Broken while I was still working on the very first draft and it’s a hard thing to tell yourself you’re right and they’re wrong when they’re the ones making a living out of writing and you’ve got nothing behind you. Like any form of criticism, it’s always important to understand what you’re being told and I’d never say dismiss negative feedback out of hand, but think very carefully before you act on it. So long as you understand this, I’d say conferences and courses are good, and you should attend them if you get the opportunity to.
Finally, after all your articles on Fifth Estate, do you have words of wisdom for other yet-to-be published authors out there?
Show your completed novels to as many people as you can, especially those who read for pleasure. I was very shy about my writing and hardly ever showed anyone who didn’t write or work in publishing what I’d produced. Now, with hindsight, I think doing so would have speeded up my development, as it would have made me think about things from a reader’s perspective much more than I used to.
Also, don’t think you’re a failure or wasting your time if you haven’t had anything published yet or aren’t making a living from your writing. I felt like that about myself and I regret that now. Some of the greatest novels in the world have been written by people who had never been published the day they sat down to write them. Who’s to say you won’t be next? And, even if you’re not, every time you sit down to write you’re going to be learning and improving as a writer, so how can it ever be wasted time?
His debut novel Broken has been published by HarperPress in March and is currently available in all good book stores.