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- Philip Kerr interview
For some reason people think there is a magic technique with regard to writing. That if they do this, or that, some alchemy takes place and there it is – perfect prose. Unfortunately that’s not how it goes. Most of an author’s time is spent researching, thinking, plotting, thinking, replotting, thinking. Then, after you’ve written something, there’s the deleting, and rethinking again.
Of course there are the times when it’s like falling down a mountain, effortless. But, like falling down a mountain, it may well hurt the next day. So what I thought I’d do was look at the questions people ask writers, and give you the honest answers.
1) How do you get your ideas?
Speaking for myself, I get ideas from the most unlikely places. Overhearing something in a queue. A newspaper article.
A comment on the Internet. A photograph or painting which haunts me. And dreams. Ah, what goodies you can find in dreams. Even the bad ones.
Especially the bad ones. I had a dream where I was skinned and then tortured by being tickled with a feather. Gave me an idea, I can tell you.
To sum it up, ideas come every waking and sleeping moment. A writer just sees them, Uses them, squeezes the pips out of them until a good working story comes out it. So listen and keep your eyes open.
2) What’s your advice to a would be writer?
Buy a pen. I’m not being flip here, but that’s the answer. All you need. One pen.
Think of all the money you’ll save by not choosing to be a tennis player or a bassoonist. No hauling around equipment, no expensive repairs. Just a pen, 30p.
A writer can go anyway with that pen. So if you really want to be an author, start writing.
Write anything. Write rubbish. But write. The trick is to think of it like a job. Forget the creative glamorous part, it’s a job.
One you have to work at, sweat at, and learn to master. And it takes time. Lots of time, lots of disappointment, and lots of family and friends moaning about how they don’t see you enough.
Because I can’t lie, it’s wretchedly solitary. You, your pen and your mind. There’s no one to off load onto. No one to blame.
No one to brainstorm with. No one to cover for you. It’s just you, with that big idea, that longing to communicate.
Remember what Ben Johnson said:
My mind to me a kingdom is.
He was right. It’s a kingdom of one, hoping to become a realm for millions.
3) Do you get writers block?
I’ve thought about this a great deal and wondered why writing is the only profession of which we ask this question.
Nobody asks a check out girl if she gets check out block. Or a doctor if he gets surgery block. It would absurd.
But it’s part of the mystique of writing that this ‘block’ periodically descends like a falling lift, crushing the author into bleakest despair.
It’s a job. Get over it.
If you’re in the lucky position of being paid to write, you deliver. Some days it’s a struggle, true. But you work through it.
Sometimes you wrestle with ideas – either a scarcity or a surfeit – but that’s the time you write them all down, and wait for the one that jumps out at you. Which it will, in a day, a week, or a month. But in the meantime, keep writing.
4) Do you work regular hours?
Personally, no. I can’t seem to organise myself like that.
I just start writing and keep writing until I’ve finished for the day. That can be a four hour stretch, or twelve hours.
Once I did sixteen hours, because I was so involved with the story I couldn’t leave it! You want to stop sometimes, I’ll be honest.
You get tired, but you know that if you don’t continue you won’t sleep, so what’s the point? When you’re really inspired it like having literary Tourette’s.
Being egotistical – because people have to read your work.
And being humble at the same time, because you want to please, to make the reader weep, laugh, or consider. To shock as well. And, of course, to entertain. There’s no point writing brilliantly if you bore your readers.
I like to imagine someone reading one of my books and pausing to look out of the bus or train window, thinking of what I wrote.
Sharing it with me, where ever I am, who ever they are. It’s communication with people who will never know each other, but who nevertheless connect at the deepest level.
When I was a kid I used to believe that there was a huge soup bowl in the sky – I kid you not – and it was full of every kind of talent, genius and skill the world had ever seen. It was all there, in that massive soup bowl – and all anyone had to do was to take their crust and dip it in…..
I still believe that. That there’s a resource of creativity to which we should all open our minds. It’s the well spring of humanity; of what is good in us; of what is greatest than us – all of us – and it has driven artists, composers and writers for centuries.
6) Would you like to see one of your books made into a film?
Ah, the question writers dread. If I’m being noble, I’d say it doesn’t bother me, but of course I’d love my work to be made into a film.
Apart from the money, think of the audience you would reach. And besides, how extraordinary to see your mind on film. Your characters, your plot, your story.
But then again, would it be your story? History is littered with the cries of authors who have seen their work bastardised by Hollywood.
Bad casting, worse acting, and re-written plot lines have all sabotaged the writer’s original work.
(Incidentally, why does the heroine in every thriller run towards a graveyard in her negligee? She never makes for the fire station, does she?…. And why does every person being pursued by a car run down the middle of the street?…. Or why does a person in danger turn on all the lights and never draw the curtains?…..)
Back to the question – would I like my work to be made into a film? Of course I would!
Let the heroine run towards a graveyard with a car after her and a flashing light on the top of her head, what does it matter? It’s entertainment.
It’s getting your work seen and enjoyed. If Hollywood can massacre Shakespeare, who am I to complain?
7) Why did you start writing?
I was stalked and beaten up by two men, one of which tried to strangle me and I developed a growth in my throat which had to be surgically removed. That’s the truth. A hell of an apprenticeship, I grant you, but it doesn’t matter how you start writing, it’s just that you begin.
For me, with untapped, ferocious ambition, I suddenly saw a career where there was limitless opportunity. Graft and ambition drove me on; persistence did the rest. I love to write, and I live to write.
8) Have you ever been tempted to give up writing?
I won’t lie, it’s been very hard at times, but that’s when you find out if you really are a writer. When you bet on yourself. Believe in yourself. If you stick it out through the tough times, you’re not choosing to be an author any more, you are compelled to be one.
No one can keep that belief inside you, except yourself. It gets knocked, you get drained, sometimes everyone’s life looks easier by comparison, but it’s just an illusion. What would a writer be without their words? Without that symbiotic exchange between themselves and the reader?
We are here to turn the alphabet into magic. Who can resist a challenge like that?
9) How do you start? I’m afraid of beginning, of the blank white page.
There will always be a blank white page when you start a new book. Always be a beginning which seems daunting. But there’s only one thought which should be paramount in your mind – what is my story?
Let that drive you.
Imagine it’s centuries ago, and you hear about an old man, a storyteller who goes from town to town. All he has is his imagination to hold his audience, his thoughts to enchant them. His reward? They listen, and for the rest of their lives they remember the man who came to the village and told them a tale which took their breath away.
Now, go back to that blank white page and tell your story – because, one day, someone will remember you.