BESTSELLING AUTHOR | COLUMNIST | TEACHER
COLUMNIST & TEACHER
INTERVIEW WITH MANDA
Did you always want to be a writer?
I’m sure there must have been a time when I didn’t, but I can’t remember it. When I was a kid growing up in a tiny Scottish village, I discovered that a neighbour had been to University with Mary Stewart (who wrote The Crystal Cave trilogy: still the best Arthurian series ever, though Rosemary Sutcliff’s A Sword at Sunset is the best single Arthurian book). That made it more real, somehow, that I might know someone who knew one of my heroes. But even before that, I’d been writing books on pages cut out of a school exercise book and threading them together with ribbon. So the plan was there, I just had no idea of how to make it happen. And besides, I was also going to be a vet…
When did you first start writing?
As a kid, I lived for reading. I had 3 library tickets, but so did everyone else in the family, so that gave me fifteen library tickets every week, and if I read fast at weekends, I could renew on a Wednesday as well as a Saturday. I read in the bus or the train on the way to school. I read at school when I was supposed to be listening to the teachers. I read on the back of a friend’s motorbike when he was taking me home. And I read through most of the evenings and well into the night. So writing was what you did when the books ran out. I was obsessed by horse books, so the first thing I wrote was a kind of pastiche of The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell. After that, I wrote books in the voice of the various birds at home – my mother ran a rehab centre for birds of prey and the house was full of owls, so I wrote first-person ‘observing the Scott household from an owl’s point of view’ books, kestrel cookery books, a small missive by imported the Sea Eagle who came for quarantine before being shipped up to Mull.
What inspired you to become a writer?
In a world where everyone watches television, plays computer games and spends their life on Facebook, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when books were the only way to escape from reality. If you really work at escapism, it’s remarkable how little time you actually have to spend engaging with actual people. I had access to my father’s library, and was obsessed with the second world war, so in between being transported by Alan Garner, or hunting through forests with the Last of the Mohicans, I was reading Flames in the Sky by Pierre Clostermann, a Frenchman who flew Spitfires. I desperately wanted to be a Spitfire pilot and hadn’t really worked out that not only was the war over, but it wasn’t about to restart at any moment. Besides, the ME 262 would have outflown the Spitfire and jet planes didn’t seem nearly as much fun.
Why did you move from being a vet into writing?
The thing about being a vet is that it’s all consuming. It’s wonderful, inspiring, heart-bursting, heart-breaking… but if you’re going to do it properly, you really don’t have time to do anything else… like read books. Or climb rocks. Or go away for weekends of battle re-enactment. Or have your own animals… I was an anaesthetist, which meant I could indulge my inner geek with physics and physiology and pharmacology all changing in real time – and at the same time, explore the grey borderline between life and death, go down to the river and dip my toes in and come back again with the animals under my care. I could become obsessed by pain relief, and proper fluid balance, and how to get horses to stand up after anaesthesia without breaking their legs. And I was at Cambridge, which meant I was on the teaching staff, and I discovered that I loved teaching – I loved taking ideas apart to find out where they came from, then putting them back together in ways that made sense. But I wasn’t being creative and a part of me was standing in the middle of a desert dying for lack of water. I had an idea that I could be both a vet and a writer – it’s not as if I’d have been the first person to do that – and I did, for over ten years, but I wrote mostly television scripts and newspaper columns and it wasn’t until I went part time that I was able to write a whole novel.
How has your life changed since your went full time?
In some ways, it’s the same: I still work the same seven-day week and there are a stupid number of days when I’m still at the computer tweaking a sentence at two in the morning, but the difference is that it’s because I choose to be there, not because someone’s picked up the phone and told me to get out of bed. And the next day, I can get up when I feel like it, without an alarm clock – which is just fine. I used to think I was a morning person, and am discovering that I’m not. Plus I teach dreaming now, and the best dreams happen in the early morning. that’s my excuse for failing to see the dawn as often as I used to. The biggest change, though, is that I have time to have my own animals now, which I never had before. I have a dog, cats (my partner would say too many, I would say not nearly enough) chickens…it’s perfect, really.
What’s good about being a writer?
Terry Pratchett says that writing is the most fun anyone can have on their own, and he’s right. There are days when it’s hard. There are days when it’s mind-bendingly frustrating and I want to throw the machine out of the window, but it’s never less than inspiring. There’s something unique about making worlds out of nothing and bringing them to life. Which part of the process do you enjoy the most?
There are two times when a book is at its best: the day I start, when it’s a blank page and all to play for and I have the ideas all alive in my head, but haven’t start cutting them out of the raw rock of possibility. And then the next best point is the final edit when it’s all come together and all it needs is the final polish, the change of one word that balances a sentence, the cutting of all the surplus words: it’s glorious. In between, I love reading around a subject, picking up tiny, tiny factoids and stitching them together in new ways that nobody else has seen. It feels like a mix between archaeology and detection and I love it.
And the downside?
I spend way, way too long sitting at a computer (and yes, it would help if I didn’t play Warcraft. If we lived near good climbing, I’d be out on the rock, but we don’t… what can I say?). My back, my forearms, my wrists…. all hate the fact that I sit at a computer, and after years of taking crashing high falls at Aikido, or doing dumb things at Capoeira that crunched my neck, it’s not going to get any better. I see a chiropractor once a week and she keeps me mobile, and I’ve upgraded to a desk with the ability to change height, so I can work standing up. I can’t think standing up yet, though, so that’s something of a work in progress. If I manage that, then there are the ‘walk stations’ that Neal Stephenson uses, which are apparently the answer to RSI and am trying to figure out how to fit one into our tiny 15th century cottage.
What is the most important attribute of a good writer?
The ability to throw work away. Which presupposes an instinct for knowing what will work and what won’t and being able to cut the latter until what’s left is the former.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
All writing starts with an idea and that idea can break out of the most arcane, unlikely places: The Art of War came from a single line in Tacitus, the Jeanne d’Arc book came from a newspaper article, the one I’m working on now, Accidental Gods, came from reading a book about the history of GCHQ. They all set up a question and the book needs to answer it, but beyond that, I need to find the texture and colours that will work. I see names, numbers, words as colours and each has its own gloss/matt surface, so the book has a particular weave and I need to understand that before I can do the more obvious work of plotting it out. Even then, I only plot in big, broad brush strokes: so much of the story grows out of people who emerge from the unfolding of sentences, or to balance a paragraph, or a flicker of colour seen in the corner of my eye which turns into a major plot point. It’s a very instinctive process, but then that’s rather the point.
Do you always write on a computer?
Pretty much. I can type far faster than I can write and it has the advantage that other people can read it afterwards which wouldn’t be the case with my writing. But there’s a point at the start of a novel when I need to sketch things out on paper and have the fluidity of the extra dimension that paper-writing gives. I can scribble and draw lines and bring in colours and while I could do this on the computer, it’s more organic on paper. But after that, everything is digital, even the editing, until we get to the final proofs.
How do you start a novel?
Every novel starts with an idea, a question. Then I need to understand the kind of people who would be caught up in this question, and then to understand the circumstances that might bring them to the edges the question exerts. (every question has possible answers. the edges come between easy answers and difficult answers and that’s the line we want to walk). All of this happens in my head. I need to go for long walks with the dog, or go talk to the chickens, or even stand cooking in the kitchen and let the semi-transparent, not-yet-fleshed-out people-ghosts crash into each other and see what happens. Some time after that (as long as my agent and editor like the idea), I begin to put notes in a book, and do some more reading. Somewhere down the line after that, I’ll start writing and that usually takes the entire outline and trashes it.
How much gets cut out? How much gets changed?
The first draft is rough and dirty, however much I like to think it’s polished perfection. even then, each day I go back over what I wrote the day before and polish it: I’d say 20% of original text might make it into the first draft. the rest has been taken from a rough outline of what might be happening in a scene to a more detailed outline, and then to something that approaches the final text. So by first draft, any scene has been rewritten 10 – 20 times. And then my agent and my editor make comments and entire scenes can be cut, or rewritten. the most I’ve ever ditched from a novel is 120,000 words, all rewritten differently. But the novel is cleaner, leaner and more focused afterwards.
How do you develop your characters?
People need to grow and evolve. I need to test them, to put them in situations that will pull them out of their comfort zones (which are my comfort zones) and see how they evolve. They have to be true to themselves, so I have to work out what their truth is, and let them show it. If they are a genuine historical character, then I have to work out how the truth of who they are pushes them to do the things they do, even if I really don’t want them to (Boudica taking the decision to attack Suetonius Paulinus,for instance). Every book that really works is one where we become immersed in the people and their lives. So I have to make sure the characters are clearly drawn and that their instincts feel accurate.
Where do you get your inspiration?
All kinds of things are inspiring. I think this is what sets writers apart: I read a newspaper story, or a non-fiction book; or I see a monument, or a cave, or a standing stone; or I visit a battlefield, or meet a new friend; or climb a rock, or surf a website…. all of these, any of them, ends up with ‘what makes that happen?’ Or ‘what led to that?’ or ‘what happened next?’ – and in answering these questions, a book arises
What is it about an idea which makes it seem like it will make a good story?
It just has to feel fascinating. I have to want to know more about what made it happen – that’s all…
What is the most important element of your writing – the ideas or the characters?
You can’t have one without the other. The ideas set the questions, but the answers come from the people…
How much of you is in your characters? Is there one character you identify with?
There has to be a part of me in all of the characters or they can’t be alive. But in every book, there’s one character I identify with more than the others, then I need to make sure that’s not obvious to the reader.
What are you working on now?
From Boudica and Rome, I’ve gone back to dual time line books. The Jeanne d’Arc book had a contemporary thriller thread and a thread set back in the fifteenth century – both pulling towards the fact that I know who she was and it’s nothing like the myth we’ve been sold. Having done that, I loved the format and so now I’m working on Accidental Gods which has a contemporary thread and a historical thread set back in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. I’m just beginning to flesh out the people for that, to find the hooks and snags and angles in the plot.
You write Crime and Historical novels. Why both genres?
I love immersing myself – and so the reader – in the past. I love delving into the known and finding the gaps that are unknown, however small, or large – and sometimes the gaps in things we think we know are huge – finding the reasons why people do things that, with the benefit we have of hindsight, seem absolutely insane. I love the exploration of other times when the restrictions of today are fewer, where life is more savage, but more free But then there are things I want to unfold, ideas I want to explore, things to be said about the modern world that really matter – and that can only be said in a modern context. So being able to shift between the times is paramount, and a great privilege.
How important is truth in your historical novels?
Truth is a very flexible thing. We all know that people are notoriously bad witnesses and yet a huge amount of historical ‘truth’ is eye witness accounts which, whatever they are, wouldn’t conform to our current concept of truth. Add to that deliberate spin and misinformation that has been part of human evolution for as long as we can remember and truth is a transient thing.
That said, it matters to me that logistical realities be accurate: if Romans didn’t have stirrups, then we don’t have them mounting by stepping into stirrups. If Jeanne d’Arc rode a warhorse in full armour and was able to couch a lance, then I need to understand how that might have happened in a world where it took over a decade to learn how to do that, and girls were not allowed to wear boys’ clothes, never mind full armour. So I want to understand what might have been, in order to weave a narrative between those bounds.
Do you enjoy the research?
I really enjoy the research. It’s a constant source of surprise and a kind of hidden joy that I can spend days immersed in texts pulling out tiny details. But it’s vital that the research never runs the book. Books are about people and are driven by the emotions of the moment.
Where are you happiest?
I’m happiest when living in the country. I love the lack of noise, the lack of artificial light; at night I can see all the stars. I love the fact that my dog can go out without a collar or lead and we can walk for miles and not meet anyone. I love being able to sit in the garden and listen to the buzzards and the red kites and the crows. I love that I saw a young badger die two months ago and today found its skull, already clean. I love all of it, actually.
How does your shamanic work interact with your writing?
How long have you got? there is no easy answer to this. My shamanic work is my life. My writing is my life. The two are interchangeable. I journey at the start of a book to ask for help to give it life. When I’m stuck with a plot point in the middle, I’ll journey to ask for help. At the end, I journey to ask for help to send it into the world. In between, I spent my morning walks connecting the sky to the earth, with me in between, and that sense of connectedness keeps me sane. I couldn’t do one without the other.
What does success mean to you?
I don’t feel successful, but I do feel fulfilled. If life is a process of striving for authenticity, then writing lets me strive for that every day.
Has the success that has come with your four Boudica books changed you?
Living has changed me. Not being a vet has changed me. Teaching the dreaming [see www.mandanew.wpengine.com] has changed me out of all recognition—you teach best what you most need to learn. If all of these are brought by success then, yes, it has, but what has changed me most is having the time and space to push my own boundaries.
What about the future?
You’ve been a journalist and a computer games writer in the past. Do you have any plans for the future in terms of different styles of writing?
Writing books is a way of story telling. I put black marks on white paper and you make stories in your head. But computer games are the new way of telling story and as a gamer, a reader and a writer, I do think they are one way forward. I have a whole slew of ideas of what can be done with modern processing power, I just need to find a programmer to make it happen…