Tag Archives: “blog tour”

A Q & A with Antonia Honeywell, author of The Ship

18 Mar

You know you’ve come across a good book when it stays with you after you’ve finished it. Whether that’s in the way you look at things with a new understanding or whether you find yourself speculating beyond the last page you know that for a time it will be there. Rarely have I come across a book that haunted me like The Ship. Long past that normal period of recalling and reflecting I found it drifting into my consciousness. I read it to Mrs Van and it was the same with her. Months after finishing, we were watching the news one night and a particular bulletin resulted in us turning to each other, eyebrows raised, saying, ‘The Ship!’ It’s no surprise that this book was among my top 5 of 2015, and I don’t need to tell you what an endorsement it is that it was in Mrs Van’s top 3, so I am delighted to be involved in the blog tour for the paperback launch of Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship.

Antonia kindly agreed to answer just a handful of the many questions this book gave rise to. I hope you enjoy her responses.

Antonia Honeywell copyright Chris Honeywell The Ship PB

 

What sparked this story in your imagination? How did it become a story you wanted to tell?

Do you read Dorothy L. Sayers at all? She is one of my go-to favourites for a good story well told, and her heroine, Harriet Vane, is a poor but fiercely independent woman who writes popular detective fiction. When she marries the wealthy Lord Peter Wimsey, she finds that her unwonted happiness and security sends her writing into darker places. That was my experience too. In my early thirties, for the first time in my life, I was able to look at someone I loved and think, ‘You love me,’ with confidence. (Politically we’re poles apart, but at least mealtimes are never boring.) It set me thinking about the terrifying prospects the human race is facing, and the responses of those with the power to effect change.

 

The sense of claustrophobia on board the ship is heightened by what’s either withheld from or simply not acknowledged by Lalla. Of the people that interact with her and shape her journey who was the most difficult to get right?

Michael was a tough one – in the early drafts, he was an aspiring cult leader, pure and simple. But as I began to live with him, I realised he was far more complex than that. His overriding motivation is his love and concern for his daughter, which brought him far closer to me (and I hope to the reader) than is entirely comfortable. The people’s motivation was easier – they have all suffered so badly that their critical faculties have been blunted. They’re too grateful for their sanctuary to ask questions. Michael doesn’t have that excuse – but he does want the best for his daughter. So at some point in that cycle, he has to be condemned for what he does – unless you think he’s doing the right thing. And I see that leads me straight into your next question…

 

One of the themes running through the Ship is the misuse of our planet’s resources. Did you undertake a lot of research around the science involved in the world you portray? What surprised you the most in what you discovered?

I did indeed. I’ve got files full of the stuff. Not just the misuse of the planets’ resources, but the amount of tinned tuna it would take to feed 500 people for 20 years and the biggest bags of rice you can buy and how long cooking oil keeps for and whether you can power a freezer from a solar panel. What surprised me most about the resources question is just how much we know about the damage we’re doing to the planet. It’s no mystery; the information’s all there, researched and proven. We know we are sitting on finite resources, and yet we buy strawberries in December and fly our green beans in from Kenya. We know the cost of cheap clothes, both for the environment and for those who are paid slave wages for making them, and yet Oxford Street is packed every Saturday. And I’m as bad. I have my car and my gas central heating, and although I don’t buy many clothes that’s only because I hate shopping. On the other hand, I don’t fly to Antarctica to personally inspect the impact of global aviation on the environment either. At what point do we stop and tell ourselves that what we’re doing is wrong?

 

Of those resources it’s arguably food that plays the most important part. Was it always your intention to have this focus or was there a process that led to its prominence in the story?

I think food is where it’s at, ultimately. We have to eat. The way we organise housing and education, the role of technology in our lives, how we travel will change, but if we don’t eat we’ll die. And in the western world at least, food has become increasingly separated from its source. Industrial farming is a long, long way from the pretty pictures on the sanitised packages in which we buy our meat. Food storage is an advanced science; it’s completely possible to eat a full diet using stored food. Tinned vegetables and fruit often contain more nutrients than the fresh ones we buy in the supermarket. By living in such isolation from our food sources, we’re depriving ourselves of the chance to understand them. I feel that we’re understanding less and less about more and more of the things we rely on for survival.

 

I understand your short story, The Time Being is included in the paperback. Which came first, the novel or the short? Have you thought about writing beyond the last page and doing a sequel?

The novel came before the short story. The publication process for The Ship was already underway when W.F. Howes, who did the audiobook, requested the story. At first I was rather nervous, but the chance to explore Lalla’s pre-ship life was irresistible and in the end I loved writing it. As for writing beyond the last page – well, twelve years ago I was never going to marry or have children and here I am with a husband and four incubii. Having said that, The Ship was written as a complete story.

 

You are a year on from the initial publication of The Ship – your debut novel. What’s changed since then in your writing, your expectations and the expectations of others?

The Ship was my first published novel, but it wasn’t the first novel I’d ever written. I served a long apprenticeship of failure, during which I learned that the only way to be a writer is to write. And write. And write. I always thought that publication would magically create writing time, so I strove for it, creating time where none existed. Then I got published, and whoever or whatever was going to give me all that time obviously didn’t get the memo. The children still need feeding, meals still need putting on the table, bills still have to be paid… So I’ve learned, really, that nothing changes. Except everything has. I’m still writing surrounded by chaos, making the most of the gaps, but now I’m writing this, for you, because my paperback’s coming out. And that brings a sense of deep contentment.

 

There’s some really nice imagery in the book, and I particularly enjoyed the subtlety of the inverted Adam and Eve moment in the middle. Were you aware early in the process that you wanted the religious parallels or is this something that emerged during the writing?

I wanted them but wasn’t sure how to get them in. But as I wrote and redrafted, I realised that they were there naturally. I just had to give them a bit of space.

 

There seems to be a wealth of young adult protagonists in literature at the moment and dystopias of many flavours abound. The future vision of the Ship is particularly stark, though scarily, not that far-fetched. Do you think literature (and by association, writers) has a valid role in waving a warning flag to the younger generations?

Yes. Yes, I do. I remember reading Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land when I was twelve or thirteen and having my world turned upside down by it. After all, it’s the younger generations who have to live with what we leave behind, just as we had to live with the world our parents and grandparents created. It’s a formative life stage – are you going to continue down the same route as your parents, or challenge it? Literature speculates to entertain, but it also speculates to explore.

 

What’s the best editorial advice you had for the Ship?

The absolute best? It was terrifying. Brace yourself – my editor told me to change the ending. I was horrified – the ending was the one fixed point, the thing I’d been sure of throughout the writing process. That advice taught me two things – firstly, that nothing you’ve written is sacred. Nothing. Secondly, that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the part that’s been identified as the problem. I didn’t change the ending, but I did change almost everything else. It was the right ending, but I’d been so sure of it myself that I hadn’t written up to it effectively. I’m grateful for everything my editor did, but that stands out for me.

 

With a growing sense of disconnection, Lalla makes her own little Museum to keep important things in. What would you put in your museum?

The value of Lalla’s museum is that the things in it are only valuable insofar as they relate to her story. No gold, no diamonds, no artefacts of exquisite workmanship. What would be in mine? The poem James wrote when he proposed. The cork from the champagne we drank when our first child was born. A paper of seeds from the guerrilla sunflowers the children and I planted all over the garden a couple of years ago. Or this – last week, I took my father to the theatre. The last time we went out together was when he took me to see The Empire Strikes Back when I was nine. I don’t know how you put that in a glass case. Maybe that’s why I write.

 

Thank you so much for your support for The Ship, and for having me on your blog, Van. It’s been a real pleasure.

The Ship blog tour banner

 

If you haven’t yet read The Ship (why ever not?) you can find it at your local (Independent or otherwise) book shop. If you have read it, find a friend who hasn’t!

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is published in paperback by W&N (Imprint of the Year, 2015 at the Bookseller Industry Awards) and is out now http://amzn.to/1K7sAtQ

A Q & A with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes

21 Jan

The Chimes PB cover

I’m delighted to welcome you to the first stop on the Blog Tour for Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, published in paperback by Sceptre on the 14th of January 2016. It’s a terrific book (of which you can read my review here) which raised many questions in me, and I’m very glad to say that I was able to pose some of those questions to Anna.

Anna Smaill author pic

 

While reading The Chimes I was strongly reminded of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, not only in the reverence you give to music in the story but also in the simple language Simon uses to tell his story. Who are your touchstones in writing – those you admire, those who inspire you, those whose books you go back to?

 

I think you may be the first reviewer to spot that connection. The Glass Bead Game made a big impression on me when I first read it as a teenager (probably the perfect time to read Hesse), and it was continually in the back of my mind while I was writing The Chimes. The concept of an intellectual elite whose philosophy and ethics are structured by music was essentially lifted from Hesse’s novel, though of course The Chimes is also very different. The writers I most admire are those for whom writing is some kind of essential mediating device, a way of decoding or just surviving existence. I love Janet Frame, Russell Hoban, Kafka, Borges, Marilynne Robinson, the NZ novelist Pip Adam. I also often re-read read George Eliot, Ondaatje. I find myself continually shaped and inspired by my favourite books from childhood, too. Particular favourites are Rosemary Sutcliffe, K. M. Peyton and the Uncle books.

 

Have you always written?

 

Yes, since I can remember. I’ve kept journals since I was about 9 or ten. It’s really very much how I work out what I think about things.

 

The scene between Simon and Steppan brings home the chilling reality of a world without memory. Simon feels balanced between feral and humane. Why did you focus on memory?

 

I think I’m so focused on memory because it seems so close to the core of what makes us human. For some reason the idea of losing memory has terrified and fascinated me from quite a young age. Trying to make sense of your memories, putting them together in a way that seems meaningful – I don’t take this for granted in any way.

 

You take the idea of music as a means of communication to an extraordinary level in The Chimes. What was the seed of this idea and how did it develop into the world you created?

 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the idea came from. When I was playing the violin, I got a bit obsessed with thinking about the differences between music and language as two different forms of communication, and was always seeking direct equivalencies between the two. Of course, they can’t be reconciled in this way. There were other elements there too. I had an utterly eccentric music theory teacher when I was at university, who liked to expound on a methodology of his called ‘Body Tonics’. His basic argument was that chord progressions in a piece of music could be matched with physical movements, and that if we enacted these movements while listening to the music, we’d gain some deeper musical insight. I may be bastardising his theory. It was basically a sol-fa technique (the thing the Von Trapp children do while running around in the mountains) that engaged one’s whole body. So, there was that, and also Chatwin’s book The Songlines, which is about how aboriginal Australians ‘sung’ their sense of landscape into being, so that all physical markers – rock formations, valleys, lakes, etc – can in turn act as a kind mnemonic device for their creation myth. All of these things coalesced somehow.

 

I’d like to ask about Jemima. Though she only appears for a short while you portray her in quite a touching way and she presents an interesting counter to Lucien. The question of course is that posed by Simon. Is she immune to the effect of Chimes?

 

I enjoyed writing Jemima because she’s nicely practical and pragmatic – which offered a bit of a relief from the intensity and idealism of Simon and Lucien. She seems older than them, in a way; more worldly. In some ways I didn’t want to examine Simon’s question too far. In a practical sense, she’s still affected by Chimes because they involve infrasound – vibrations that are inaudible but affect you physically at the level of your nervous system. However, I liked to think that because her awareness and communication isn’t directly reliant on music, her mind and consciousness is different – she’s developed different ways of thinking and remembering.

 

I found the Order intriguing. With their presenting and reinforcing of ‘OneStory’ they seemed to me somewhere between a religious parallel and a political one. Were you conscious of creating them in either a religious or political mould, or did you strive to avoid those direct associations?

 

I wasn’t striving either to cultivate or avoid those specific associations. I guess, it’s more that political or religious extremism was simply another arm of the sort of extremism I hoped to represent with the Order. I was interested in what happens when we take idealism to an outer limit. How does that pursuit allow for the ordinary mess of human lives, and the human impulses that can’t be tidied or understood? The Order obsessively believe that human expression, and human thought, is our highest function – which means that all that isn’t perfect, or orderly, has to be expunged. I think this impulse is fairly similar in much religious thought, that sense that the body is a threat to the spirit. They’re very basic and central human impulses, but they become destructive when they’re taken to an extreme.

 

There’s something very close to fairy tale in what you present in The Chimes: a band of outsiders and a governing organisation, the uncovering of clues and the overcoming of obstacles, and the passing down of a tale in rhymes. There’s even an aged mad woman. Were you aware early in the writing process that you wanted this reflection of the importance of oral history or did this develop as the story came together?

 

I started writing The Chimes very much under the influence of the young adult literature that moved and interested me. A lot of the radical freedom of excellent fantasy and YA is that, maybe because it isn’t weighed down with the responsibilities of realist representativeness, it can really cut to the fundamentals, the verities – love, loyalty, the struggle for meaning. Those mythic rhythms and emotional chimes are ones I also find in fairy tales, myths, stories which tell us something simple and deep about being human. I suppose I was striving for and craving that sort of deep resonance in what I was writing. I had just finished a PhD on contemporary poetry, and most of my previous days had been filled with dense academic language!

 

Your choice for The Pale Lady is a very good fit but I wonder whether you began with scientific reasons for the choice, practical reasons around availability or whether the word play led you there?

 

A little bit of all three, in a somewhat circular way. I knew I wanted a sort of ore, a shining metal that would act as currency yet also present a sort of mystical physical and spiritual pull. I happened on to palladium, as far as I recall, because it had the pleasing attribute of being occasionally used in the production of concert flutes. The slang forms for palladium followed naturally, but it felt as though they’d also preceded me somehow – particularly as the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ had already shown up in the writing. The scientific connections – ie the fact that palladium is used in catalytic convertors to filter exhaust, and as a conductor in electronics, added a sort of synchronicity and metaphorical richness to the idea for me. Though I should state that there is absolutely no scientific basis for any of the uses to which I put palladium in the novel…

 

There’s something a little ‘overnight sensation’ about debut novels and the way they’re marketed (though with a Man Booker longlisting, and having read The Chimes it’s the overnight bit that to my mind is the false note). How long did it take from first putting pen to paper to publication?
What’s the best editorial advice you had for this book?

 

Yes, I agree – there tends to be a fascination with that breakthrough moment. I think in part, it’s fair. There is something distinct and utterly unusual about first novels: they involve so much of your life, they’re a kind of leap into the unknown, a massive and intriguing gamble, and they can utterly turn your life around. But these are all narratives that don’t ultimately connect with the nitty gritty facts of writing. The first glimmers of The Chimes came way back in 2009, while I was finishing my PhD. I didn’t acknowledge that I was working on a novel, though, until 2010. In 2011 my daughter was born and any semblance of a writing routine flew away and then I only returned to proper routine work on it early in 2013. With two days a week to write, I finished in about 4 months. It had a long long gestation, but a very fast delivery. Then the editorial and pre-production of debut novels is typically quite slow, as they want to spend a decent length of time on publicity and marketing prior to the release. And now it’s 2016, a terrifying number of years later, and the paperback is coming out!

I had so much excellent editorial advice with this novel. My agent Will was one of my first readers, and just prior to submission he dropped a particular gem about how one might go about sustaining uncertainty in the reader. The beginning of my book is essentially a cloud of vagueness, but he made the important point that I had to distinguish between the general mystery of the opening (ie – the facts of the world that were simply yet to be revealed to the reader) and the things that were weird or perplexing to the protagonist. It sounds simple, but it really transformed how I thought about the opening sections.

 

What does the future hold for your readers, can you tell me anything about what you’re working on next?

 

I’m working on a new novel, which feels in many ways utterly different from The Chimes. It’s set in a contemporary, far more familiar and realist Tokyo. But, I can’t quit that drive toward the fantastic, so the city is becoming denser and odder as I write. There is also music creeping in as a method of plotting the story (I won’t give away too much), and elements of a thriller also.

 

If you had to travel with a roughcloth bag what would your objectmemories be? (sorry, I know it’s sacrilege to ask, but…)

 

It’s not in keeping with the universe of The Chimes (where they’d have been burnt long ago), but I’d probably take my journals. They all have different associations, depending on where I bought them, the paper, the pens I used, so that even if I couldn’t read them, I think there’d be sensory memories there. I think, a bit embarrassingly, I’d probably take my old Burberry trench coat. I lent it to Simon for the novel, but I had it first! Bought off Ebay before my daughter was born, and my single most-worn item of clothing ever. There are plenty of memories in that homely old gabardine.

 

 

My thanks to Anna for making my questions look insightful (and for adding a few more names to the TBR pile), and my congratulations for writing such a wonderful book. I feel it will be with me for quite some time! Thanks also to Ruby at Hodder for making this Q & A possible. Don’t forget to check in with the other stops on the blog tour.

chimes_facebook_post

And, of course, don’t forget to read the book!

My Writing Process

9 Sep

I’ve been invited to join in the My Writing Process blog tour. Mark A King (@making_fiction) said some nice things about my work and tagged me (you can find his entry here). A few moments of stark horror – (Oh god! They’ve caught me out; process? What do you mean, process?) – gave way to a smile. What we do is largely solitary, whittling away at a block of words to free some slender thought. Fretting over commas, wondering about tense, voice personal pronouns, just for a moment, receded. The essence of why, the reward for the fact that we make these stories stole over me. A connection was made.
How we love the little approbations!

The questions:

What am I working on?

I’m going through something of an editing phase at the moment, revisiting old story ideas and looking for ways to improve or tighten them up. I have a novel trying to attract an agent and three ideas for the next novel vying for supremacy. I have a longer-than-normal (for me) short story that I’m honing and an idea for a Halloween tale. Other than that I’m flash-fridaying, twitter-fictioning and using writing exercises to keep nimble.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It feels like a pretension to answer this question, and already I’m balancing between display and obfuscation. I guess it’s a stab at pinning down that slippery concept of authorial voice. What I do doesn’t inhabit the realms of a specific genre (at least not to my mind). I don’t set out to write comedy, though I have been surprised by readers’ reactions on occasion. I’ve not written a horror story, though I wouldn’t rule out giving it a go. Often half of what keeps us going with a tale is the challenge of the conventions that constrain it. I seem to be pre-disposed to approach writing ‘rules’ head-on to see if I can find a suitable way to break them.
Everything I’ve written thus far is contemporary, and most of it invested in a ‘normal’ world (though I do delight in the odd curlicue of magic-realism – it’s the very ordinariness of it that appeals). If pushed to pick a genre I’d say I aspire to Literary and probably cling to commercial.
A fellow writer once said to me that the characters in my short stories seem to share a sense of the noble, which was a very nice thing to hear. Having pondered the point I’m inclined to think there is something in it. It’s the stark unfairness of life that so often inhabits and inspires our stories, and our reactions to those situations, how we bear these burdens that fascinate me as a writer. If that’s evident in my characters I’m a happy man.

Why do I write what I do?

We write what we like, don’t we? I don’t think I’m any different from everyone else regarding this. It’s a sure way to appreciation of your craft to try and emulate (not imitate) what pleases you as a reader.
I think the fact we write what we do, or more precisely the fact we can only write what we write, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a limiting factor in a realm where limits don’t belong. Anything can happen in a story – now your mind wanders a little and you try and think of the most improbable thing you can…in the world of a story, that thing is normal. You can go anywhere, do anything – where do you start? Or perhaps even why do you start?
There’s another slant to this question: the pay-off. Sometimes I get goose-bumps reading a story. I remember the opening chapter of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake did it to me. It describes what would ordinarily be an idyllic scene but the way she does it, the language she uses just undermines your senses. You find yourself ill-at-ease with it without necessarily knowing why. And I looked at it and thought – it’s just words! She did that with words! When you craft a sentence and you read it back and you think, yes, that’s exactly what I wanted, it feels amazing. When a reader says to you, that bit there when you did that, and you realise they get it completely, I don’t think it gets any better than that. And that’s the blessing of why I write what I write. When I know a phrase is perfect, when I know it’s not accidental or serendipitous but crafted, I know what it feels like to be a writer.

How does my writing process work?

With a short story I don’t tend to plan much, though I’m not likely to embark seriously on anything longer without an outline. I’m not rigid about them though. One thing writing a novel taught me is that your plan needs to be changeable. A few of the chapters took some ‘writing into’, following the plan until I found where I should have gone. It felt like wasted time at first, but it invariably gave me invaluable background to the scene that ended up in the book.
Mornings tend to be better for me. It’s all about avoiding anything shiny. If I need to check the email it’s a bad sign. Likely that’ll be an unproductive day. I try not to edit as I go with a first draft, but I invariably do. There’s something perniciously conspicuous about a typo you know you’ve made. It’ll interrupt the flow more than anything if I leave it there unmended. Longer pieces need targets too. If I let it drift it’s in danger of drifting off over the waterfall, never to be seen again. The most important part really is to sit down and write stuff.
Once it’s down I leave it for a while and come back with an editing hat on. I look for the little writing tics that I have. I read it aloud to hear how it sounds. I challenge it, ask if it really says what I want it to, check for efficacy. Prolix is a disease with me. I confess that I love the sound of words so I really have to watch myself in case I get too flowery. It never pays to be too pleased with a sentence.
If I don’t have an idea I’ll try and just write something, anything. I’ll think about an exercise – observing or listening, describing senses (check out Emma Darwin’s blog – http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/ – if you’ve not done so already, some great exercises there). Some days I’ll end up with a load of babble about wind and trees and people sniffing on the train. Other days something will lodge and before I know it I’m following my nose and writing my way into something. Ideas can come out of anything. I’ve had titles come fully formed and written stories around their suggestion. I’ve had sentences that have expanded into full stories. I’ve had characters that begged to be dropped into some unusual (for them) scenario. And then there are the times when it’s a case of simply turning up and plugging away until it’s right.
There’s a quote from Henry Miller that sums up nicely for me: When you can’t create you can work. It’s a useful mantra and it’s got me through many a grinding day’s writing.

And so to three writers whose work I admire to pick up the baton:

Rachael Dunlop is a fellow Etherite (http://catalog.etherbooks.com/Authors/477) and member of the East Dulwich Writers group. You can find her work in many places, but the best bet is to visit her blog for links. Rachael’s short stories are formidable – if you read as a writer. Her imagery is effortless and she has a real knack with well-chosen words, without once getting in the way of her story.

Kelvin Knight is a fellow member of the Daily telegraph Short Story club. Kelvin has a keen nose for a distinctive voice, and would make a far better job of linking those two senses than I did. You always feel very up-close-and-personal with his work, and there’s a poetic tinge to his words that appeals to me. Kelvin’s blog is here.

Jules Anne Ironside is unleashing a formidable character on the world next year. I met this character (and Jules) on a writing course and I can tell you there’s a treat coming your way! Jules knows the most interesting and unexpected things, and reads as astutely as she writes (so check out her book reviews too). Podcasts and anthologies with Jules’s work abound, including her editorship of the recent anthology, A Seeming Glass. Check out Jules’s website here.