The Back Burner

So just a couple more name-drops here. I went to the exceedingly fragrant Charleston Festival with my friend Ruthie and we heard Esther Freud and Edward St Aubyn talk about drawing from their lives for their work. Then, after lunch by the marquee, we went for a big old walk up Firle Beacon. After that it was Joanna Trollope being interviewed by (and at times making mincemeat of) William Nicholson.

I love Joanna Trollope’s writing – it is so clean and clear and well-structured – a bit like her, in fact. I was heartened to hear her describe her writing process, because it’s very like mine. We both start with a theme, find a setting, build our characters then start writing. She usually knows where she wants it to end, but that’s the extent of the structuring for the first draft. She says you have to observe the world and trust your subconscious to do the work for you. I entirely agree.

Walking down the hill with OldMan the other day, on our way to see yet another Brighton Festival show, I decided to tell him how far I had got with my thinking about novel #3. I realised, as I was still going on twenty minutes later, that I had actually accumulated a mass of material without once sitting down and thinking about it in a conscious way. It’s always there, the next story, quietly building, being sparked off by small moments as I go about with my eyes and ears open (I’ve even got some thoughts about novel #4 fermenting somewhere down in the must).

And that is the key, and what Joanna Trollope really hammered home – you have to watch and listen to everyone and everything. A long train journey, or a delayed plane that means you have to sit in an airport for hours are gifts for a writer. You can write notes if you want – and I do always carry a notebook with me – but essentially just observe, eavesdrop and learn. It’s all useful.

The bad news is that, in answer to my questions ‘I love writing, but I find it difficult and scary. Did you when you were at my stage? and does it get any easier?’, she answered ‘Yes, I did. And no, it doesn’t’.

Ah well, then.

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