‘A highly original, fresh, new talent of rare quality’ – The Lady
At the end of the interview there is an extract of Devil’s Music to whet your appetite.
What inspired you to write The Devil’s Music?
The Devil’s Music was inspired by a child case study written in the 50s by the psychologist D.W.Winnicott about a child who tied things together with string. After reading it, I kept seeing, in my mind’s eye, an image of a boy with blonde hair, head bent to a ball of string. The case study made me angry: I wanted the boy to tell his own story, give his own reasons for his fascination with knots. In the case study, tying things together is a ‘perversion’: in TDM, knots are what ‘save’ him.
So, what’s it about? What is the genre?
The Devil’s Music is about a mother who ‘leaves’. An agent described it as commercial/literary fiction. The novel explores family secrets, the effects of both what’s said and what’s unsaid on a child growing up. It’s also about the fallibility of memory.
It seems like a very deep, tear-jerking read. Did you find the research harrowing to do?
The most heartbreaking research was reading the case histories of women who for one reason or another live, or have lived apart from their children. It is still a taboo and such pain is caused by the stigma attached to being a ‘mother apart’. A furious sense of injustice drove me. My aim with TDM was to give both the mother and her little boy who is obsessed with knots an ending which may not be exactly ‘happy’, but is at least hopeful. Several readers have commented that they found the novel ‘cathartic’. I think that’s a good thing!
Was there a character you struggled with?
The novel is narrated by a mother and her son, Andrew, as a child and as an adult man. I struggled with writing Andrew as an adult, not because he is a man – I have written male characters before without struggling – but because he is withdrawn and uncommunicative. His head is filled with knots! He doesn’t like talking much, so finding his voice in first person was tricky. Andrew evaded me for a long time. Nevertheless, I felt a strong empathy with him, which helped me to persevere.
How many unpublished books do you have lurking under your bed?
There are no novels under the bed! Writing The Devil’s Music took about 6 years and the process was a slow and steep learning curve. In terms of the number of discarded and reworked full drafts of TDM, you could say there are about half a dozen under my bed, but all of them trying to find a way to tell this same story.
How did you find your publisher?
My agent sent the novel out to three publishers, one of whom was Bloomsbury. I am very happy with the way the novel and I have been looked after, and I have recommended Bloomsbury to other writers. My editor, Helen Garnons Williams, is completely brilliant and seems to have understood both my novels better than me. My publicist, Katie Bond is tireless and enthusiastic, and thanks to her, plus the efforts of the sales and marketing team I have had lots of opportunities to get out and about to promote the novel around the country.
How long did it take to find your agent? How did that “phone call of acceptance” really feel like?
I was lucky. Of the first three agents I sent to, two wanted the novel – so I had to choose! It all seemed to happen very quickly, a couple of weeks after I sent the novel out. That whole time was surreal, hearing total strangers saying wonderful things about TDM and talking as if the characters were as real to them as they are to me. After the first phone call, I wandered in a daze out to the garden where my daughter was sunbathing and burst into tears. She thought someone had just died!
What’s the best/worst part of being a writer?
I love most stages of writing, but for me the most exciting times are when connections between various bits of research, ideas, accidental discoveries – all these things coincide and the story begins to fall into place. Is that serendipity, or synchronicity? I love the sense that the story isn’t mine at all, but already exists somewhere in the ether; my job is to try to get it down on paper without any damage. The worst part of being a writer is when I’m not doing it well enough, when self doubt interferes.
I can identify with that only too well! How “finished” was the book when your agent took you on? Did you need to change it much?
It wasn’t finished when Hannah took me on. The last 5,000 words were sketched out in note form only and the beginning chapters were all over the place. Hannah, my agent, worked with me to finish it over the summer and we sent it out in the autumn. The most significant changes were made once I was with Bloomsbury. Helen, my editor, never says ‘cut this’ or ‘add that’; she asks probing questions and makes suggestions. The imaginative detail is up to me, which is just how I like it. Her passion for the novel gave me the confidence to cut thousands of words from the beginning. I also spent weeks fiddling away, line by line, at the opening and the final pages.
What is the process like? From receiving The Call to holding the book in your hands, how long did it take?
Between The Call and publication was quite a slow process. In April 2007 I had an agent. We knew Bloomsbury were interested quite early on but because the novel still needed work, it wasn’t until April 2008 that I signed a contract with them, for two books. Then in July 2009 TDM came out in hardback. Two years from agent to publication!
What is the most productive time of the day for you to write?
At the moment I write best in the morning and then, after a break, in the late afternoon/early evening, but I can write anytime if necessary. My OH and I have 5 children between us and when I was writing TDM they were all teenagers. I wrote whenever I could find any space and time.
And Devil’s Music is nominated for an award, isn’t it? Tell us about that?
It’s the 2011 International IMPAC Literary Award. Nominations are made on the basis of ‘high literary merit’ and come from selected libraries in capital and major cities around the world. The first prize, at 100,000 euros, is bigger than the Booker. It’s quite a quirky prize and I bet it’s the only time I’ll be on the same list for anything as Margaret Attwood!
(Click on the link to be taken to the nominations).
I write straight onto the computer, but scribble a lot in notebooks throughout the whole process – little plot details, or spider diagrams of scenes I’m trying to reorder. I do always use several notebooks.
What/who do you draw inspiration from?
This is a hard question because the sources of inspiration are different for different stories. In general terms, a love of reading inspires me, other authors. I consume books with a kind of greed. With individual stories, often several things come together to spark inspiration. With TDM, the specific trigger for writing was Winnicott’s case study, but I’ve been interested in memory for a long time – especially childhood memories, the painful ones we suppress, and others which we imagine are the ‘truth’ , only to find our siblings have an entirely different memory of the same event. I also have a bit of a ‘thing’ about rope, and an old book of my father’s about knots.
Do you set yourself goals when you sit down to write such as word count?
I was on a course once with Toby Litt who announced in no uncertain terms we should turn off our word count facility! That was a relief. I don’t like word count goals. People’s minds work in different ways but for me, numbers are too sterile and work against creativity, which is a much messier and chaotic thing than numbers of neat words on a page. I need to play around and make a mess. If I have word counts as targets I do endless sums which involve time and numbers of words and whether or not the right total will be reached before my deadline – how can that help a story grow? I am a slow writer and that is a bit of a worry, so I’m disciplined about setting aside clear blocks of time for writing/thinking/working on the novel in whatever way.
Yes – which is unusual. My daughter (Natalie Miller – link above leads you to Natalie’s website) read the climax chapter of the novel and then took some photographs on West Wittering beach, near where we live. We sent them into Bloomsbury and they loved them. The art department have put the design together beautifully, especially for the hardback. We are both delighted. The hardback cover is my favourite.
What are you working on now that you can talk about?
My current WIP is Rook, a novel that I’m very excited about. It involves rooks (of course), mud, Anglo Saxons, 1066, stars, burial illegitimacy and stillbirth. Rook digs around in history to find the stories told as myths and traditions.
Is this a similar genre to Devil’s Music?
Yes, a similar genre, and involving family dynamics, but it’s also about stories and the interconnectedness of things, of past and present and of landscape and people.
How do/did you deal with rejection letters?
Rejection letters hurt. Ten years ago I started sending short stories and poems out to competitions. It was a rejection to hear nothing, but you deal with it. Tell yourself it just has to land on the right desk at the right time. Sometimes it’s down to luck: with TDM I was very lucky, because two agents of the three I sent to were interested. Even so, when the third sent a note saying: ‘we just didn’t like it enough’, the pain was physical. That told me I still need to toughen up some more!
Do you have a critique partner?
I have been in the same writing workshop for years. The four of us did our MAs together and formed a bond. One is a poet. I think all prose writers need a poet every now and then to help keep an eye on the words, the right words in the right places. I also swap novel drafts with other novelists, such as Karen Stevens, who is a colleague, Kathy Page, a Canadian writer to name just two. With Rook, Helen, my editor at Bloomsbury, has made the most difference. She has helped me see the novel as a whole much more clearly.
I’m alone under a high sky. Clouds race across the blue, skim in reflected shoals over puddles and hollows in the wet sand. I’m holding Susie’s rubber bucket. Far away, made small by distance, a man digs for lugworms.
You’re in charge, Andy, my mother said. She picked Susie up and put her on one hip. They went to get ice-creams.
My shorts are wet and clinging. I have tipped out Susie’s morning collection of slipper shells, bits of razor shell, the joined pairs of purplish shells she calls butterflies, and now the bucket is filled to the brim with water. Tiny cracks appear in the stretched rubber handle. The water’s surface glints, tilting like a flipped coin; the slanting O almost reaches the lip. It will spill.
I put the bucket down. At my back the sea heaves and drags.
The rubber bucket is old. Once, it was mine.
I look up towards Jelly’s carrycot, a long way away on the pebbles. Then down to the edge of the wet sand where Jelly lies on my towel by the pool I’ve dug for her. She was lumpy as a bag of coal in my arms and nearly as heavy; my chin knocked on her head and my bare feet burned on the pebbles. But she was too hot and squashed in her carrycot. She couldn’t stop crying. Further up the shingle bank my mother’s empty deckchair billows red and white stripes.
Honey is circling, nose down. Round and round Jelly and our pool. I see Jelly has rolled onto her stomach. Honey sits down. She barks once; twice. The man digging for lugworms pauses and looks up, a foot on his spade. Goose bumps rise on my arms.
And now my mother is racing, skidding down the steep shingle slope, a clutch of ice cream cornets held high. Pebbles bounce and slide. Far behind, by the row of beach huts with their shuttered doors Susie holds her arms high, hands like starfish, stiff in the air.
My mother reaches the pool. She stands rigid. The ice creams topple and fall. She bends to scoop Jelly from the sand and wraps her arms around her. My mother lifts her face to the pale sky, her mouth wrenched open.
And that’s when I hear the high pitched sound, a keening that goes on and on and doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop when the lugworm man throws his spade to the ground and begins to run, doesn’t stop when the bucket drops at my feet, doesn’t stop when I’m crouched low, hands covering my ears.