Wendy Perriam Author Interview: Part Two

wendy perriam

Credit: Frank Baron

Earlier today, in part one of Wendy Perriam‘s interview, the author discussed her average writing day, her journey into publishing and just where her ideas come from. In part two, she compares writing short stories to novels and looks ahead to the digital age and future plans.

Is it more difficult to write short stories or novels?

The received wisdom is that short stories are more difficult, but I have never found them so. Novel-writing is definitely more laborious, involving more advance-planning and in-depth research – a marathon, in contrast to a hundred-metre sprint. And, even when I’ve completed a novel, it’s much harder to assess three-hundred pages than a mere half-dozen or so, which can be read at one sitting, without getting sidetracked or losing the thread.

On the other hand, writing short stories is certainly a challenge, in that the essence of the short-story form is concision. That means cutting out extraneous detail and paring down the prose. It’s a bit like making stock: you boil down the bones to extract the goodness, remove the debris and reduce and reduce until you’re left with the pure meaty essence.

Do you have a particular favourite character from any of your books?

I tend to prefer the bad girls to the good ones. Some of my female protagonists are dutiful and “normal”, such as Morna in The Stillness The Dancing, or Jennifer in Born of Woman. Others are wild and whacky, like Carole in Sin City, who loses all her money in Las Vegas and ends up working in a brothel, or Thea in After Purple, who masturbates on trains and shoots the Pope. My sympathies are with these ‘naughty girls’, perhaps because I was born one myself, but had no chance to go wild in my strict Catholic home and cloistered boarding-school. One of the advantages of being a writer is that your characters can live alternative lives for you!

As for my male characters, I’m attracted to the overbearing, dominant ones, such as Christopher, the haughty stained-glass artist in Bird Inside, or Caldos de Roche, the protagonist of Absinthe for Elevenses – snobbish, selfish, but also flamboyantly sensual; a man who makes love to church music, because only that, he claims, has the power and passion of sex itself.

Yet I’m fond of the wimps, as well – Bryan, for instance, in my blackly comic novel, Fifty-Minute Hour, who takes his toy snake to bed and longs to parcel up his mother and post her off to a far-flung destination, with no ‘if undelivered, return-to-sender’ address. And I also have a soft spot for Eric, in Broken Places, who feels he’s a coward and a loser, yet wrestles heroically with his fears and ultimately achieves success, despite his unhappy start in life.

To tell the truth, I’m fond of all my characters. As their creator, how could I dislike or disown them, whatever their frailties and follies?

With the digital age upon us, do you still believe in traditional publishing or are you an e-convert?

Broken Places by Wendy PerriamForget the digital age – I don’t even own a television or a mobile phone! With my passion for the radio and my dislike of computers, I suspect I’m stuck in a 1950s time-warp. For me, books are companionable friends, each with its own individual character. I’m currently reading four different novels and all four are quite distinctive: one slim and spare and spanking-new; one chunky and well-worn; one with a vibrantly coloured jacket; one stark and grey and severe. I don’t want them reduced to anonymous downloads; shorn of their interesting covers and their heterogeneity. Books as physical objects also furnish a room, and my flat is crammed with them. I still have my childhood favourites – tattered but treasured copies of Parliacoot, Thunderhead and Milly-Molly-Mandy.

On the other hand, many of my own titles are already issued as ebooks, or in the process of being converted, so, in some ways, I welcome ebook readers. And, with my deteriorating eyesight, I’m certainly attracted by their facility to increase the size of the type. My 800-page paperback of Our Mutual Friend – one of the four mentioned above – is certainly causing me eye-strain!

Have you ever been tempted to write about someone you know (including the ability to adjust their fate accordingly…)?

No. Two of my fellow authors, once extremely close, now no longer speak to each other because one depicted the other in a novel – surely a dire warning to all novelists. Anyway, the role of the fiction-writer is to invent characters, in contrast to the biographer – although even biographers run the risk of ructions and libel-cases.

The most I might do is ‘steal’ certain aspects of someone I know and use them for a character who’s totally unlike them in every other way. For example, Charles, in my novel, Cuckoo, has my dad’s love of order and efficiency, but his job, background and general demeanour are a far cry from my father’s. And for my novel, Michael Michael, my friend Mary Edwardes allowed me to use her own experience of being married to a Michael Edwardes, whilst also knowing two other, unrelated Michael Edwardes. I also drew on her work as a psychotherapist, but the character I eventually created was nothing like Mary in outlook and personality.

What’s next for you…?

The total rewrite of my seventeenth novel, which I’ve just completed in its first draft. Although I made constant daily revisions throughout the writing process, I now need to don my editor’s hat and read the whole thing through with a highly critical eye. I’ll be looking out for any saggy passages; any repeats of ideas or phrases, and also trying to assess its general feel and structure. Is it too long? Does the beginning drag? Are there any characters who fail to convince or need greater delineation? Do any scenes need more drama, especially sex-scenes?

I also have to choose a title. I have two in mind, but neither is quite right. I remember a really hairy time, some years ago, when my new novel was due to go into production but I’d still failed to come up with a title. My frantic publisher summoned me and some of his colleagues to a brainstorming session and the six of us eventually hit on an idea – although I have so say it’s the least favourite of all my book-titles.

Although the editing process is hard work, I find it the most enjoyable and least stressful stage of writing a novel. All the words are already on paper; the whole plot is worked out, and a suitable ending in place. The research is done and most of the hassles are over – I hope! I may find on my re-read that my new baby isn’t as strong or healthy as I thought, and needs not just a bit of TLC, but weeks of Intensive Care. Well, my Peter Rabbit mug is standing by, prepared for a long slog!

Wendy Perriam‘s novel Broken Places and collection of short stories I’m on the Train! are scheduled for release 30 April 2012. Both are available to pre-order now.

Check out Wendy Perriam‘s website at http://www.wendyperriam.com/

Wendy Perriam Author Interview: Part One

wendy perriam

Credit: Frank Baron

Wendy Perriam has not one but two books out with Robert Hale Ltd this month. Her novel Broken Places is out in paperback following on from its tremendous success in hardback. Her collection of short stories, I’m on the Train!, is also out on Monday. 

In the first part of her interview with us, Wendy talks about writing from an early age, her long journey into publishing, getting kicked out of convent school and just where her ideas come from.

Don’t forget to check back later for part two …

Have you always enjoyed writing, from a young age?

Absolutely! I wrote my first poems and stories from the age of four and my first ‘novel’ at eleven. The latter was sheer wish-fulfilment. Entitled A Pony at Last, it featured an ordinary girl like me, who longed to own a pony – highly unlikely in my own case, since we lived in a suburban semi, in a cul-de-sac, miles from any field or stable. The only horse in evidence was the milkman’s decrepit nag. However, my heroine and alter ego becomes the proud possessor of a thoroughbred chestnut mare, so, before I’d even reached my teens, I had realized the power of writing to remake an unsatisfactory world.

I was a sickly, unsporty child, so, while my siblings went skating and cycling, I preferred to curl up with a book, or pen my own variations on Black Beauty or the Famous Five. In fact, I spent much of my childhood with imaginary companions or in imaginary situations – as do several of the characters in my new short-story collection, despite their being adults. In the story Michael, the office dogsbody, Carole, finds strength and support in an Archangel, who becomes her guide, her protector, her shopping-consultant and even her alarm clock. And then there’s eighty-eight-year-old Connie, in Thick Hair, who re-enacts her wedding day, tragically aborted in 1941, when her fiancé’s ship went down; while Jodie, in Hope and Anchor, not only conjures up an imaginary dog, but also transforms her unloving, absent father into a proud and doting dad.

‘I spent much of my childhood with imaginary companions or in imaginary situations’ – Wendy Perriam on a childhood love of writing.

Although now in my seventies, I still draw on the power of the imagination, both in my life and in my work. I find it both consoling and compensatory; an alternative universe where anything can happen.

What was your journey into getting published like?

Well, I’d dreamed of being an author from early childhood, but a series of reverses prevented me from achieving publication until a much later stage. Firstly, I lost my once-all-important Catholic Faith and was expelled from my convent boarding-school. Told I was in Satan’s power, I lived in terror of damnation, which precipitated a long period of depression, followed by physical illness, fertility problems and a painful divorce. So it wasn’t until my remarriage – and the ripe old age of forty – that I saw my first book in print.

I’d been taken on by a literary agent, on the strength of my short stories – written more as diversion than in the hope of publication. This agent said that, if I wrote a novel, he’d publish it. Despite my own deep-seated doubts, he proved true to his word. Absinthe for Elevenses was accepted by Michael Joseph, the first publisher he tried, and came out in 1980. After that, I just put my head down and produced the next book – and the next – scared that if I stopped, my lucky break might come to a precipitous end!

How do you spend your average writing day?

I always start early in the morning and postpone household chores, emails and phone-calls till later in the day. It’s all too easy to waste vital energy on such trivial distractions! But, first, I make a cup of coffee in my special ‘writer’s mug’ – a Peter Rabbit one I’ve had since babyhood. Perhaps all those busy bunnies, racing round the rim, provide me with a good example of enterprise and exertion!

‘I just put my head down and produced the next book – and the next – scared that if I stopped, my lucky break might come to a precipitous end!’ – Wendy Perriam on the fear that comes with finally being published.

I'm on the Train! by Wendy PerriamWith my earlier novels, I’d start at page one and keep going till I reached the end, not stopping to revise until the first draft was completed. Now I’ve changed my method and tend to revise continuously – rewriting each chapter or each short story over and over, until I’ve licked it into reasonable shape.

I prefer to write by hand, in the same red notebooks I favoured as a child and using the same messy, slapdash scrawl. This seems to free the sub-conscious and thus aid the imagination, and I always encourage my creative writing students to swap the computer for a pen. Certainly in my own case, I find composing on a computer inhibiting and unnatural – perhaps because I didn’t own one until I was in my sixties. I didn’t even know how to type and had to enrol on a beginners’ course – the oldest student in the class!

But, once I’ve done my writing-stint, I do – reluctantly – go to the computer and turn my messily scrawled pages into a neat typescript. Then I spend the afternoon revising this typed draft, continually retyping and re-revising, until my mind is soggy and I realize it’s time to call a halt. At that stage, I turn my attention to emails and household tasks, although making the beds at 5p.m. seems appallingly sluttish and I hear my long-dead mother’s voice in my head: ‘Any decent housewife does the chores first thing!’

Where do your ideas come from?

My ideas spring from anywhere and everywhere, especially those for short stories. In my new collection, a pub sign swinging in the wind gave me the idea for Hope and Anchor, while The Little Way arose from viewing the relics of St Therese of Lisieux, on display in Westminster Cathedral. Baggage was prompted by my own total inability to pack light. Even for a weekend-break, I’ll take a cabin-trunk.

I plan to start on an eighth collection of stories, once I’ve completed my new novel, so I’m already on the lookout for ideas. Wherever I go, I keep my senses primed, ready to pounce on even the smallest incident – a puppy in the park, a punk’s flamboyant hairstyle, a fracas on a bus – and then let my imagination get to work and turn this tiny seed into a story.

‘Wherever I go, I keep my senses primed, ready to pounce on even the smallest incident…’- Wendy Perriam on where her ideas come from.

Ideas for novels tend to come less randomly and need much more working out. I may start with a character, like Catherine in Second Skin, who feels she’s never been the person she was born to be, or with a concept such as fear – as in my last novel, Broken Places, or with a situation, such as Lorna’s bungled bunion operation in Tread Softly. Yes, even an unsightly bunion can kick-start a novel!

Check back later today for part two of the interview, when Wendy discusses the digital age and what’s next for her books…