Tag Archives: Writing

A Q and A with Fran Cooper, Author of These Dividing Walls

26 Apr

Towards the end of last year I was lucky enough to be sent a proof copy of Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls. I say lucky because it turned out to be one of my top 5 reads of last year (you can read my review here). Amongst all the press saying how brilliant it is – it is brilliant, by the way – its release next week will garner, you can also expect the word prescient to appear a good deal.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the cover is lovely too!

dividing walls

 My luck, it seems, knows no bounds as Fran Cooper has agreed to a quick Q & A with me about These Dividing Walls, Paris and her writing. Enjoy!

 

1       Although These Dividing Walls finds its origin in short stories you’d written about the inhabitants of an apartment block, it’s very much a complete and rounded novel rather than a collection of linked stories. How did this become the bigger story you wanted to tell?

In 2014 I applied for and was accepted onto the Womentoring Project. Lisa O’Donnell (author of The Death of Bees and Closed Doors) became my mentor, and she was the first person to convince me I could write a novel. Or rather, tell me I should write a novel. Her confidence was infectious, so I just thought why not? I had so many characters already floating around in my head, so I took the plunge and started weaving their stories together.

 

2       There’s a broad range of characters in your book. Who did you find the hardest to get right? Who was the most enjoyable to write?

Ooh, such a good question. Funnily enough, César Vincent flowed most easily for me – he just appeared fully formed one night, and I think he probably needed the least editing, even though I’d never really written a character like him before. It was really important to me to get the character of Anaïs right; to give her her own story and space without her becoming just another clichéd new mother. She probably changed the most between drafts one and two!

 

3       What’s the best editorial advice you were given when writing These Dividing Walls?

To not go from 0 to 100mph over the space of a single chapter! That was the most useful advice for me – it gave me the freedom to give each of the characters the space they needed and deserved.

 

4       There’s something a little conspiratorial about the style of the writing, a feeling at times of things being whispered over fences. How conscious were you of your reader in the process of writing? Is this something you enhanced in the drafting or a more organic occurrence borne out of the story’s set-up?

I’m not sure I thought about a “reader” in the abstract sense of it while I was writing! I was living in Paris when I started the book and performing short pieces from it at open mic nights in sweaty bars and basements, so I suspect that conspiratorial sense may have come from that – the fact that, in the early stages, I was sharing these snippets with people, whispering the characters’ secrets as if they were real secrets. But, looking back, it’s also the way I’ve always written. I love the idea that you, as a reader, get to know more about characters than they do themselves. I’ve always enjoyed reading work like that myself.

 

5       Your love of Paris as a city is evident in the writing, a sense of joy in the depiction even of the less salubrious quarters. Were there places you simply knew you wanted to include in the narrative? Are there any off-the-beaten-track places in the book that you’d advise a tourist to seek out? 

Paris was a very magical city for me – truly the place I feel I came of age, became my “real” self as it were. And there are certainly some very magical and off the beaten track places that I had in mind writing. The rue des Thermopyles might be one of the prettiest streets in the world. The Arènes de Lutèce blow my mind – you’re walking around the 5th arrondissement and suddenly stumble across a Roman arena with kids smoking and old men playing pétanque. And the Petite Ceinture (an abandoned railroad that runs a ring around the whole city) is an extraordinary, otherworldly place to explore (though you have to hop a fence in order to get onto it!).

 

6       Although it feels to some extent like Edward and Frédérique’s story, there are many lives running through this book. Were they intended to be the nucleus around which everything else revolves?

To me, the building is the nucleus. It’s what – physically and metaphorically – holds everyone together. Certainly, Frédérique and Edward were there from the beginning, but I didn’t think of them first and then add everyone else around them.

 

7       It’s interesting that Edward provides a foreigner’s experience of events. Was it always your intention to have, specifically, an English perspective?

Yes, absolutely. I wanted a fresh pair of eyes through which to see everything – and, for myself, I wanted the caveat that much of the book was seen through an outsider’s eyes. He remarks on things that I’m sure a French person wouldn’t bat an eyelid over. Edward’s arrival was not only a catalyst for much of the book’s action, but he was also a way to capture some of the joy and befuddlement I myself have felt as an expat!

 

8       You were mentored as part of the WoMentoring Project. How much of a difference did this make to your writing? If you were to pick one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you learned from the experience?

See no. 1! This was a game-changer for me. It gave me the confidence to just go for it. When you’re not in this world and don’t know how it works, it can be very daunting. Having someone who’s done it before point you in the right direction is an absolute godsend, even if they’re just telling you that it’s important not to sound nutty in your cover letter. That’s my biggest piece of advice to people now – don’t write a nutty cover letter when submitting your book! You hear about some real corkers…

 

9       The possibilities for the residents of Number 37 to appear in their own stories are endless. Have you considered taking any of the characters further on their journeys? Or are you working on something completely new? Is there anything you can tell me about it?

Ahh, I haven’t really thought of doing that, though I wouldn’t want to say definitively that I’m done with all these characters and their individual stories. I’m in the process of editing my second book now, which is, in some ways, very different. But I think the themes of community and secrets are probably just as strong.

 

10     There’s often something of an overnight feel around a debut novel, though of course there are years of writing behind it. What has the path to publication been like for you? What are you looking forward to, or perhaps viewing with trepidation, for the months to come?

I’ve been enormously lucky. I have a wonderful agent and a wonderful editor (who was the person who actually signed me, back when she was working as an agent!) so my path to publication has been guided by very diligent, careful and caring hands. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the idea of your book actually being in the shops though. I wrote the vast majority of These Dividing Walls at home, in my pyjamas. Writing is an enormously intimate process. And then suddenly, it’s off, out in the world… I think it’ll take me a good long while to get my head around that.

 

Finally, I’d just like to say congratulations. I enjoyed These Dividing Walls immensely. It was one of my top 5 books last year, and I’m sure it’s going to win you many fans!

— Thank you so much for your kind words! As I say above, you spend so many hours alone writing these things thinking “god, am I talking complete rubbish? will anyone get this?” so to hear such a lovely, enthusiastic response is enormously heart-warming!

 

 

These Dividing Walls is published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 4th May 2017 ISBN: 9781473641532

 

You can find Fran on Twitter @FranWhitCoop

My especial thanks to Veronique Norton for arranging this Q & A.

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Van has finished reading… On Writing by A L Kennedy

22 Feb

A L Kennedy’s On Writing sort of is and isn’t a how to… book. If you’re looking for a book that gives you points and takes you through exercises and shows you how you’re going to be J K Rowling in six months’ time you’re looking in the wrong place. (If that’s the book you’re looking for stop looking; you’re just going to spend money and I can tell you now for free that the J K Rowlingness is very unlikely to follow that spending). If you’re looking for a book that gives you an idea of what it’s like to be a writer you’re getting closer to the truth. If you want to know what it’s like to be A L Kennedy you’re pretty much spot on because what you get in the two parts of this book are collected entries from the blog she ran at The Guardian, or from material on her own website, wherein she talks about her writing – the act of it and the fact of it and how being a writer makes her happy and also makes her ill, and how because of it she has to do things that scare the wits out of her, like get on planes, and that sometimes she likes to assist a gannet from one place to the next – and I don’t mean geographically. Then there are the essays and show transcripts where she talks about how powerful words can be, and her first-hand experience of seeing that power in action, whether it’s the application or the withholding of it. She talks about things that she feels very deeply and she talks very honestly. It’s moving stuff. And none of it sounds particularly like a how to book. Unless you look at those exhortations to keep at it. And to question. To try, and quite possibly fail but then to question, and to try again, and to keep trying because that’s what’s important. Because without that there is only silence, and there are so many things out there that can silence you. It’s like a little piece of you falling off and turning to dust and blowing away when you’re silenced. And for some silence can be a truly terrible thing.

My own experience doesn’t fall into the truly terrible category but for me it is still as vivid today. I was thirteen years old and silenced as I held that thin sheet of ruled A4 paper with the ‘F’ scored into it and circled in red pen.  I’d written a story for my English class under the title we’d been given: The Handicap. I imagined a boy in a wheelchair stuck on the sidelines at a football match, his wheels only ever leaving tracks in the dewy grass up to the edge of the pitch and never onto it. He was referred to as ‘the handicap’ right up to the end of the story, where surgery had given him the gift of his legs back and he could look at his footsteps as he crossed the line onto the pitch. And finally he had a name. I’d lay good money it was awful though at the time I was immensely proud of it. And the teacher carved an ‘F’ on my page. And perhaps because that didn’t quite convey the depth of her feeling about it she circled it to make it stand out a little bit more.

She added a note: the idea that a handicapped person should not have a name is obscene.

Exactly!

I should have said it, should have shouted it, should have railed, how can you give me an F when you understood the very reason I wrote it? But I didn’t. I sat there silently and shook because with that F she took my voice away. That’s the day a little part of me fell off and turned to dust and blew away. That’s the day I stopped listening. That’s why I got moved from the top to the middle class a few weeks later.

 

A L Kennedy talks a lot about voice. I should say writes a lot about voice but you see what happened there? Because I’ve seen A L Kennedy at a reading and there is absolutely no way it could be any other voice playing in my head while reading On Writing than A L Kennedy’s. The writing sounds like the author. It’s written in her voice.

When the voice is good, when it really works you know it, you fall into it instinctively as a reader. There’s something in the pattern or the rhythm or an idiosyncrasy in the words themselves that clues you in and the voice you hear in your head isn’t your own voice but that of someone else entirely. That’s the magic and the mystery of that elusive x-factor that is Voice. And putting it like that makes it seem so small! But try it. As a new-to-the-task writer or an aspiring writer or a seasoned writer, as any kind of writer, this is knowledge like water that runs in beads off the back of your hand and leaves no trace. It’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s not even easy to explain to someone who’s been told to ‘find their voice’ as a writer, or that they need a unique voice to get anywhere, or any of the other myriad little smoke bombs that you then have to peer through to try and get near to some kind of understanding of what it is these Gatekeepers of the Land of Authors are trying to baffle you with.

What A L Kennedy says about voice in this book makes enormous sense because it goes right back to that basic question of what a voice is. All the smoke we blow around that question gets wafted away.

It reminded me of Paul McVeigh and his fabulous novel, The Good Son. When I read it I heard a young Irish lad and his Irish family and friends in my head because all the clues were there for me. And I loved it. It’s a great book, funny and touching and wise. I was lucky enough to be at the launch of the book, where Paul read the opening chapter and all the playfulness, the cavernous depths of cheeky little boy humour came tumbling out. It wasn’t quite as funny as that to me when I first read it but when I go back to it I know now I’ll be laughing my arse off because now it’ll be not just an Irish voice but Paul’s voice I hear telling me Paul’s words in my head.

Writing tip: you are your own voice so be you. It’s not the end of the search but it is a great place to start.

 

A L Kennedy’s On Writing is all honesty. Her humour, fervour and sometimes anger shines as we read into what it’s like to be an committed obsessive workaholic writer. I know that doesn’t sound much like one but it really is a good read.

 

On Writing was published by Vintage in 2013 ISBN: 9780099575238

 

You can find A L on Twitter @Writerer or at her website http://www.a-l-kennedy.co.uk/