The uncompromising and startling Heidi James, whose brilliant novel Wounding came out earlier this year, invited me to take part in the ‘Writing Process Blog Tour’ last week so here I am. It’s a tour of writers’ blogs, asking them to answer four questions about their work. You can read Heidi James’ responses here and follow back through the tour from there. Here are my responses:
1. What am I working on?
I’m working on four projects at the moment: a short, short story collection, Glitches, due to come out sometime this year with Andrews UK Limited; my second novel about two half sisters, one half-Malawian and one English, who swap countries; my blog in which I’m attempting to read and review a book a week; a children’s story, ‘The Magic Story Pot’, which will be performed by Storyspinner at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in August this year.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Whilst I understand the uses of genre to categorise books for certain readerships, I also find the idea of genre limiting. I love great books and some of those books fit neatly into certain genres and others don’t. My novel, Home, has been marketed as a horror novel, but it doesn’t really fit the conventions of the genre. I have been describing it as an unpalatable novel. In my mind the unpalatable borrows from all sorts of genres – slipstream, horror, speculative fiction – to create something that should discomfort the reader, not terrify them, but make them uneasy and ready to question the world around them. Of course, all sorts of writing does this, it’s just a label I’ve chosen for my own work.
Glitches is very much in this unpalatable zone. There is a story about a cancer ridden professor who forces his nurse to breastfeed him and another story about a woman who goes slowly mad when she can’t force the world to cohere into a conventional narrative – she begins to fixate on what doesn’t fit, the glitches in time or space that we all experience when we think someone is behind us only to turn and find no-one there.
My second novel, however, is something rather different. Whilst it is ostensibly a more straightforward literary fiction novel, the half-Malawian sister uses other people’s discomfort in asking about her heritage to pose as a man at university and the English sister spends a lot of time questioning what it really means to give aid to another country. It seems I can’t escape gritty or dark subjects. Whilst I don’t thing any of my practice differs dramatically from others, we each of us have a unique voice and I believe that none of us would ever be able to tell quite the same story.
3. Why do I write what I do?
This is a question I’ve asked myself a lot. It’s a question my family has asked me a lot and it’s something friends say when they get round to reading my work. ‘I would never have imagined you would write anything so dark,’ they say. Thinking about the unpalatable was one way to answer the question. I realised that I was drawn to writing about things that make me feel uncomfortable and as writing is the way in which I try to make sense of the world, it’s those things I want to write about. I see people – a man whose right hand has lost every digit from the second knuckle to the tip, say – and wonder what happened and who they are. Things happen in the world and I wonder why. Writing is a way of exploring those questions and hopefully taking readers along with me. I don’t know where human beings would be without the power of stories and one day it is my hope to create something that stops being my story and becomes a story that people start to tell as their own.
4. How does my writing process work?
I would like to say I have a routine. I would like to say that I write at a certain time each day and write a certain number of words, but that only happens sometimes. When I do write like that, it’s wonderful, but most of the time it really happens when I simply can’t hold the ideas in anymore. Something, a person, an event, sets me off down the path of wonder, and eventually, after a lot of thought, that something becomes a story shape that demands words. I’m not a writer who meticulously plans – though as I say, I do have a shape in mind – because I like to explore through the actual writing itself, the first draft being the best way I know to tell myself a story. Of course, after that, there is a lot of editing and cutting and adding and generally making the story more visible in places and more subtle in others, hopefully better.
Emma Claire Sweeney’s fiction has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund, and Escalator Awards (for which she was nominated by Jill Dawson), and has been shortlisted for several others including the Asham, Wasafiri, and Fish. This year, Emma Claire and her writer friend, Emily Midorikawa, launched Something Rhymed – a website about female literary friendship that attracted over 3000 hits in its first month alone. Her debut novel, The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge, is inspired by her autistic sister.
Melissa Bailey was born in Derbyshire in 1971 but grew up in Lancashire. She went to Lincoln College, Oxford, where she did a BA in English Language and Literature. Then she moved to London to study law and practised as a media lawyer for a number of years. The Medici Mirror is Melissa’s first novel. She is currently working on her second.
Look out for their posts next week.