This week The Book Diner interview is coming out a day late as we’ve all been in mourning here in the UK over the terrible events in Manchester, so please forgive my tardiness in posting this. Today I’m sharing an interview from the archives, when I was very fortunate to have one of the most critically respected short story writers in Britain, David Rose, discuss his fiction and writing process with me.
Not only is David a master of this form and one who possesses real insight following a long career, but I can also attest he is great friend to emerging writers such as myself. David was very supportive to me whilst I was waiting for my first novel to be published, so it was a great honour to interview him and I’m very happy to be able share with you his approach to writing which I am sure authors of all stripes will benefit from hearing about.
David often regards himself as ‘retired’ from writing, though I am always telling him to continue as he is such a great talent! However, David’s modesty in the face of fantastic reviews for Posthumous Stories – a collection which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize – was all part of his charm, so I try not to nag him too much!
I really hope you all enjoy reading about David’s approach to his work and enjoy meeting this giant of British letters. His dry wit always makes me laugh and I hope you take pleasure in it too!
Welcome to the Book Diner, David! Can we take your order – coffee, tea or soda? Eggs sunny side up or over easy? Home fries, French toast or biscuit?
Just coffee, thanks, but plenty of it.
When did you realise you were a writer?
Hard to say. I had always ‘written,’ i.e. scribbled, later poetry in my teens (sub-Eliot stuff), but never considered myself a writer. Maybe I still don’t, as to me, that implies writing as a profession, which I have never contemplated.
Are there particular symptoms you think people should look out for if they suspect they may be coming down with Writer Syndrome and do you think there is any cure?
The usual and most visible symptom is having the urge to jot down notes at inconvenient times – at night, at work, eating …
I don’t think there is a cure; the virus has to take its course and burn itself out. Fortunately in my case, it now has.
Can you tell us about your latest project?
My last project was a collaboration with the photographer Roelof Bakker – a short (3-minute) video of a derelict tower block in London, with a voiced-over narrative, told from the fictional architect’s point of view.
What inspired you to write it? Where do you generally draw your ideas from?
In this case, the video itself, which was a development from a previous project of Bakker’s, a published collection of photographs of another derelict building (once Hornsey Town Hall) accompanied by commissioned stories triggered by the photographs (called ‘STILL’). The signs of abandoned life, and work, I found highly evocative.
In my stories over the years, the trigger may have been a character I knew – and working in the Post Office [like Charles Bukowski – ed.!] meant I got to know many – or something I had read. In many cases, they came from abstract ideas, but they would then need an appropriate person or situation. After the fall of the Communist bloc, I wanted to write about the sudden imbalance in the world. But I wasn’t able to until I linked it with a previous unusable title (‘Greetings from the Fat Man in Postcards’) which had come to me in my sleep. This when fertilized by the new idea became a story about a travelling salesman bigamist picking up a hitch-hiker. Whether the connection with the geopolitical world is clear is another matter.
Can you talk to us about one or two of the characters from your latest work? How do your characters emerge?
My most recently published work is the story collection, Posthumous Stories, so it’s hard to narrow that down. In a sense, all the characters are aspects of oneself – I think that applies to most writers – but caught and expanded into full scale by incorporation into a fictional character who has traits derived from observed people, often a number of people, an amalgam, but even if they derive from one, the process of imagining ourselves into the character changes them beyond recognition; they grow almost by themselves during the writing. It’s unlikely the person drawn on would recognize themselves.
Is there a particular theme or message you’d like readers to take away from this book?
I don’t think so. Some themes will recur, but that was subconscious – the stories were written over a twenty-five year period, so two stories with similar themes might have been written decades apart. I think all writers have subconsciously recurring themes, but they need to remain subconscious.
What kind of writing process do you have? Are you very disciplined in terms of having a set work routine and doing a lot of planning, or are you more of a pantster? (You fly by the seat of them – Zinkologism.)
I’m no longer writing, but when I did, it was generally late in the evening, when relaxing, often listening to music, and most productively in the upswing from a depression. But the idea itself may have been already there, germinating in my mind, or jotted down in a notebook.
The exception was when writing Vault, my first novel, when I had to find a new, more disciplined approach in order to keep the writing going over a long stretch. I did this by writing every lunch break, in my local Pizza Express – just writing for that hour, then revising, researching and making notes – but not writing – in the evenings.
Do you write longhand or on a computer or both? Do you believe that writing method makes a difference to style?
Initially, I always wrote longhand – never onto a typewriter or – later – word processor. In part this was because my typing would be far too slow to keep up with my thought. But also because I needed to experience writing as a physical process, and to keep the draft as fluid as possible for as long as possible. So it would go through a number of longhand pencil drafts – with phrases rubbed out and replaced – and only when satisfied would I then type it up, after which it would quickly ‘set’, with only minor polishing being possible.
How do you approach research?
As a good excuse for not writing. I would often convince myself of the necessity of checking certain facts, in the library, before I could get down to write. It’s a form of useful procrastination. But that novel, and a later one, did necessitate a lot of background research, historical and/or technical, which I enjoyed in itself. I have always read widely, so a detailed history of the war and its aftermath was very interesting.
And I chose an architect as the narrator of the second novel because I knew I would enjoy the research for that, as I had made the narrator of ‘Vault’ a cyclist (for which I had some personal experience to start from).
How do you deal with autobiographical elements in your work? Do you worry about offending people or baring your soul too much?
I think the autobiographical elements are merely a starting point, as I explained earlier, and might not be recognizably so in the final story. I hope no one has ever been offended by any element of my work, but it isn’t something I would seek to control.
What’s your editing process?
It was always fairly rigorous – a story would go through several drafts, always in long hand, as I have said, and each draft being put away for some weeks before further revision, to avoid staleness. Finally, it would be typed up, and after further delay, corrected and polished, then sent out.
Name one book you wish you had written and explain why it’s fabulous.
I can think of lots of books I admire, but none I would wish to have written. Every writer is different, with their unique voice, and I hope my own is unique to me, so I can simply enjoy the voices of others, their individuality.
What advice would you offer to writers just starting out?
I don’t think writers need or benefit from advice – if you have to write, you will, regardless. But if you have any other talents besides writing, I’d say explore those first; writing can be dispiriting.
What would you say are the toughest things and the best things about being a writer?
Hard to sum up. With writing, there is no physical satisfaction inherent, as there is in, say, painting or sculpture – the finished product is all you have, and if it’s no good, there has been no compensation.
But if it is good – and you generally know when it is – it can be supremely fulfilling. Seamus Heaney once said that writing is like sex in a relationship: if it’s going well, you forget it the rest of the time; when it’s going badly, it’s forever on your mind.
Seamus Heaney once said that writing is like sex in a relationship: if it’s going well, you forget it the rest of the time; when it’s going badly, it’s forever on your mind.
How do you handle the rejections and bad reviews all writers experience?
My rejections were for the most part of my life rejections of individual stories by the editors of literary magazines. You get used to it. But I would make it a practice to wait until I had three stories I was satisfied with, then send them out to three separate magazines in succession, then as each one was returned, I would send it out elsewhere while awaiting the return of the other two. Like keeping three plates spinning at once. Eventually, one of them wouldn’t return, which made it all worthwhile, and would then be replaced with a fresh one on the rounds. Gradually the acceptances mounted up.
How do you deal with the Inner Critic who likes to tell us our work is worthless?
I ignored him for as long as I could. Now I think he was right.
What are your feelings about the growth in self-publishing? Would you advise emerging writers to self-publish or pursue a traditional book deal?
Hard for me to answer as it didn’t exist when I started out – only vanity presses, which were expensive – and didn’t apply to stories. But there were at the time enough small literary magazines going, so eventually a writer would gain acceptance.
If you only write novels, it’s much harder. You would need supreme self-confidence to self-publish; but some writers have that. Most of us would need – and would benefit from – the confidence that editors bring, not just in their editing, but in their belief in our work.
Who has offered you the most encouragement and support in terms of your writing career?
After I suddenly wrote a short story, in my mid-thirties and completely out of the blue, with no previous thought of ever writing fiction, I sent it to Graham Swift (whom I knew through a work colleague) who was tactfully encouraging, so I joined a local adult-education writing group. That group, under its tutor, the poet Jennie Farley, formed a mutual-support group which was invaluable to me, and I believe, other members. I still miss it.
If you could fly off to any era on The Book Diner Magic Time Travel Banquette, where would you go and why?
Probably to a time in the early Renaissance or late Middle Ages, when there were very few books, and every book mattered.
If you could write anywhere in the world for a while, where would you head?
Any dream location would be the perfect place not to write – too much distraction. I could only write alone in my room – or for a while, in my local Pizza Express.
Do you like cats or dogs or both? (Writers are known for being pet crazy, so let’s pander.)
Neither, but if I had to choose – dogs.
Complete the following sentences. Life is like … I am like … Writing is like …
Life is – just life; ‘Life is its own metaphor,’ as I said in my second novel.
I don’t know myself well enough to describe, and it wouldn’t coincide with others’ opinions, I’m sure.
Writing is like … I have forgotten; it’s been a while now.
If you could choose to have a different creative gift, what would it be?
One of the physical arts – painting, printmaking, sculpture. I saw a documentary once on manic depression: the incidence generally in the population was 5% – in writers, it was 50%. Amongst creative artists, it was lower, although still high, and lowest for sculptors. It’s that physical process again.
What plans have you got for future projects and events?
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
They can look up the Salt website, or Google Posthumous Stories – David Rose and may find some reviews. [David is also published by the same house that produced my first novel, Welcome to Sharonville, Unthank Books.]
Is there anything else we can get you?
Do you have any questions for The Book Diner?
Can’t think of any. The bill?
Thanks so much for joining us – please call again!