Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Interview with Anne Goodwin

I'm surfacing from a few busy weeks to talk about Anne Godwin's debut Sugar and Snails which will be published on 23rd July in paperback and ebook.  I spoke to Anne about writing and the inspiration behind her novel. 

When did you know that you wanted to write?

I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember, telling them to my sister or writing them down. When I was at university, I submitted a couple to magazines, and even won a national travel writing competition, but I was much too self-conscious and secretive about my writing at that stage to elicit the feedback that’s vital to developing one’s skills. It wasn’t until I hit a bad patch in my life a good twenty years later, and had to examine my priorities, that I could admit how important it had always been to me and commit to the long process of discovering if I had it in me to produce a novel worthy of publication.

Were you a big reader as a child? If so, what books did you like?

Definitely! There was a period when I was about eight years old when I went partially deaf, but I really didn’t mind because it made it easier to shut out the noise of a large family and concentrate on my books. I liked Enid Blyton of course (my loyalties were with the Famous Five rather than the Secret Seven); Richmal Crompton’s William series (although looking back now, it’s hard to see why, as I didn’t identify with any of the characters); and the Australian writer, Ivan Southall. In my early teens I moved on to Agatha Christie (Miss Marple in preference to Hercule Poirot, though I probably devoured the whole lot) and Baroness Orczy for the Scarlet Pimpernel series. Then, through school, I was introduced to Jane Austen and the Brontës at about age fourteen.

What is Sugar and Snails about?

It’s about a woman who’s never felt comfortable in her skin, always conscious of not being the person she feels – or others make her feel – she ought to be. In adolescence, she thinks she’s found a way of bridging the gap, but her solution brings its own problems as she feels compelled to keep her past life a secret. Although the particular path she takes is quite unusual, I think (hope) that her emotional journey is one with which many readers will connect.

How does your background as a clinical psychologist inform your writing? Were you conscious of a need to strike a balance between explaining enough and explaining too much when writing about Di's career? 

Over twenty-five years as a clinical psychologist, I’ve been privileged to connect with people at a particularly vulnerable, and often particularly interesting, point in their lives. Of course, I could never repeat stories shared with me in confidence, but it’s given me a solid foundation for creating characters with emotional depth. Years of practice constructing a narrative that makes sense of someone’s foibles in the context of their life experience has also proved a good apprenticeship for writing character-based fiction but, of course, I’ve had to throw away the terminology of clinical reports.

As an academic psychologist, Di is quite sceptical about clinical psychology and messy feelings which can’t be measured. I didn’t set out to make her a psychologist, but I wanted her to work in a large organisation, so put her in a university that was fairly familiar to me. I gradually realised that making her a specialist in adolescent development could provide the reader with insights into her own adolescent predicament from which she herself was detached. (As a recipient of psychological services in childhood, a fascination with the technology served to distance her from the painful emotions.) Because she lacks confidence in the validity of her own perceptions, she tends to filter her experiences through psychological theory. Rather less of this showed up in the later drafts, however; partly because it entailed too much “explaining” and partly because it no longer seemed necessary to the story. I suppose it’s up to readers to decide whether the balance is right for them.

PictureCarol Shields is credited with saying, 'write the book you want to read, the one you cannot find.' Is Sugar and Snails the kind of book you would like to read but haven't been able to find?

I’d readily follow any advice put forward by Carol Shields, but I do think it’s impossible to tell if the book you’ve written is one you’d like to read. But Sugar and Snails has many of the elements I look for as a reader, with an emotional undercurrent that resonates for me personally while showing me a way of being in the world that’s so different to my own. I’m also drawn to characters who, like Diana, encompass contradictions – being both ordinary and extraordinary, competent and vulnerable – because that’s what I see in real life.

Your next novel, Underneath, is about a man who keeps a woman imprisoned in his cellar. It sounds terrifying. What made you decide to write this particular story, and when will we be able to read it?

Because I became engrossed in the narrator’s rationalisations for his actions, I sometimes forget how ghastly the premise of this story is. My initial idea was to see if I could write about the terror of being totally dependent upon another person who can’t be relied upon (which would have been the captive’s experience), but it morphed into a story from the other side. I get very frustrated by media reports of violent crime being “explained” by the perpetrator being diagnosed with a mental illness (when, in fact, people with such diagnoses are more likely to be the victims of crime). Underneath is partly my answer to that by showing an ordinary(ish) man’s gradual unravelling through his attempts to deny what he’s lost.

I started writing Underneath after completing my second draft of Sugar and Snails (thinking it was finished, but it was far from it), and would alternate between the two novels over the next few years, not knowing would get published first – or indeed if either of them would get there. I don’t yet have a date for Underneath as yet, but I’m not in any particular rush: I want to make sure I can apply all I’ve learnt through the process of publishing its older sibling.

Thanks for your interesting and informative answers Anne, and all the very best with Sugar and Snails.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Some Reading

I don't get to read very much at the moment, which is a real shame, but I have read two fantastic books recently. Firstly, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. What a charming and beautifully written novel. The characters were memorable, the prose insightful, the descriptions deft - I was enchanted; I didn't want it to end.

Secondly, The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman, a novel about female pugilists in Georgian Bristol that is accomplished, gripping and bloody brilliant. The BBC acquired the rights and I really, really hope the series is made - *everything* crossed.

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The Trouble with Sheep and Goats won't be published until 2016, but The Fair Fight is now out in paperback. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Desmond Elliott

Warmest congratulations to Claire Fuller who won the Desmond Elliott Prize last night, for her novel Our Endless Numbered Days

It's strange attending prize a prize ceremony and waiting for the announcement. The wait is really nerve-racking, but once the announcement has been made the rest of the evening is actually quite fun. And, in this case of this particular prize, not winning results in the arrival of this:

How lovely is that? It's easily the poshest present I've ever received.

And, even better, this was also waiting for me when I got home:

(The legs - perhaps she thinks I rode a horse back from London)