BHASVIC creative writing students asked: ‘How would describe your style and how did you find it?’
I could probably spend the rest the day just answering this one. ‘Finding one’s voice’ is quite possibly the trickiest part of writing. I’d like to think that each book I start has a slightly different voice or style to the previous one, but after half a dozen books I can see that I’m drawn to particular material and have certain habits when I write. Like most writers, I imagine, I began by impersonating – to some degree or other – the writers I admired. As I may have mentioned before, I’m a big fan or Richard Brautigan, so I suspect some of my very early (and very short) short stories sounded a little like him. Also, writers like Salman Rushdie and Peter Carey (witty, clever writers of rich prose) loomed pretty large in my imagination in my twenties so I guess there was something of them in there too. But even as I write that I want to rush to my own defence. If I had their voices rattling round my head I would have hated to think that I was incorporating them into my own text. And every writer has to feel that they’re doing something unique and original. So the truth is probably that I was trying out all sorts of stories, and possibly different voices in each one and just seeing which ones worked and where the writing led me.
I’m a firm believer that each story has a voice to suit it, even if it’s written in the third person (ie: a ‘voice’ is not just for novels in which the protagonist talks directly to the reader). My first novel, The Underground Man, was about an eccentric Victorian eccentric. When I start developing the idea I knew nothing about the Victorian period and its literature, but it gradually dawned on me that I should probably read Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and some books by Rider Haggard and Wilkie Collins, etc to try and get an idea what happened in a Victorian novel and the various tones in which they written. I also discovered these fabulous, crazy novels that encouraged me to write a rather crazy book of my own. One of the best things I ever did while researching a novel was to just go into my local library and request some letters which had been written around the time my book was set (the mid-late 1800s). I spent maybe a day reading through them – trying to get some sense of their syntax (the order of words in a sentence) and choice of vocabulary, etc. On the one hand, it gave me some ideas how to work towards the voice of my protagonist, but just as importantly, it gave me confidence – and that, as you’re probably already finding out, is the key to good writing. To put it another way, trying to write when you’re lacking confidence is incredibly hard.
So when I came to write my second novel, Five Boys, which is set in a different part of the country, in an entirely different period, I felt I was working in a very different direction. It was only when I’d finished that I saw the odd similarity. All my books have eccentricity in them somewhere … and a sense of grief/loss … which is hopefully leavened by wit or humour. And I can’t deny that the gothic element keeps popping up. So, better than most people, I can see the links between my books, but also how they’re different (or how I’ve tried to make them different, which isn’t quite the same thing). But you’re reading ‘Ten Sorry Tales’, which when I look back at it now, feels like a sort of old-fashioned vinyl album. Tom Waits was once asked how he came up with the ideas for songs for a particular record and he said something like, ‘I come up with a couple of ideas, put them in a biscuit tin and they have babies.’ That’s pretty much what happened with the stories in Ten Sorry Tales.