Conducted by Norman Hadley
1. All writers experience tension between the write-what-you-know autobiographical versus the fear of betraying confidences. How do you handle that balancing act?
I think it begins with where an idea comes from. With prose (because my approach is slightly different with songs) the germ of the idea comes from an image or a scenario that catches my attention: why would a boy nail a cat to a tree, what would it be like to live back in times of yore when you’re sewn into underclothes for the winter, what if a Matryoshka doll was alive… that sort of thing. When it comes to the fleshing out of the story, you carry it round in your head for a few days/weeks, and you’re looking to give the story a context, an authentic depth of experience. It’s here that perhaps the autobiographical elements get drawn into it, because your richest store of experience comes from what you, yourself know – you use the paint you’ve got. I can’t think of an instance where I’ve set out on a short story with the intention of making a testament to a particular experience, but at the same time, I recognise a lot of my own life, or facets of it, in them. Funnily enough, the closer, or at least, more overtly close to my own life a story becomes, the more I become uncomfortable. It’s the ‘why would people be interested?’ situation, but not a kind of false modesty – more that it becomes harder to tell the story too well. If you’re too close to a subject, you lose some of the technical perspective, for instance, the ability to differentiate between something that actually happened and its real value to that story. You get bound up in facts, and in feelings at the expense of the story-telling. This is usually where I start playing around with metaphor. There’s a lot of metaphor in what I write – it’s my key to understanding the story. It can be the act of slicing tomatoes, the pouring of a glass of milk into the grass, a painting inspired from mathematics. I’m a lot more autobiographical in songs, I would say. Music is cathartic for me, sometimes I worry about self-indulgence, so try to push for lyrics and scenarios in the song that are, varied and interesting – if they’re about the same range of subjects, then I try to bring new slants on them. I always remember a lyric in ‘Nothing is Good Enough,’ by Aimee Mann that captures that slight sense of embarrassment when you find you’re banging on about the same old thing in a new song. ‘Once upon a time the story always goes but I’ll make it brief, What was started out with such excitement now I’d gladly end in relief… In what now has become a familiar motif…’ As for betraying confidences, there are some songs I have never played to anyone outside of nearest and dearest, because of the subject matter. I think, ultimately, everyone has an inner barometer for what they feel is ok. And I think that’s the bottom line. I’m a strong believer in the idea that every person owns their experience – it is their’s to do with as they will, but a wise, or considerate person can make good choices too.
2. You’ve said some strange things (many strange things, now I come to think about it) about preferring writing not to be over-worked. That seems a surprising attitude from a Creative Writing tutor. Sell it to me.
A piece of writing should be assiduously worked over until it’s done. Then it should be left, lest it become over-worked. Then, it should be returned to after a period of time when it’s had chance to settle and you’ve had chance to learn something new about writing. You come back, put it before the inner jury and they decide whether it could/should be rewritten up to your new bar. Over-working is not the same as redrafting, it’s a surfeit of attention that usually leads to a noticeable tension in the writing, or a funny kind of disconnection between itself or with the original emotions of the piece.
3. In quiet, lonesome moments, are you a girl, a woman or a lass?
I’m a brick-layer, called Brian. He writes poems on the back of Gregg’s pasty bags.
4. Katherine Mansfield was moved to assert, “I’m a writer first and a woman after.” Which way round are you?
My gut reaction is to say I’m a writer first. Sometimes in class we look at a piece of ‘problematic’ writing that illustrates a certain technique. I usually write these (another cathartic experience!) and I enjoy hearing people refer to the unseen writer as, ‘he,’ or ‘she.’ There’s even one sheet with a series of four supposed ‘extracts.’ I wrote each one, but people attribute gender to each of them – not always the same each time, to be fair. When I was working with Litfest on ‘Before the Rain,’ I was asked if I saw myself as a ‘regional writer,’ in particular i.e. one that identifies and seeks to respond to their home area in their work. At the time I said, no, not particularly. But it niggled with me, so much so that I’m loathe to say I’m not a woman writer. Because I am. Is it part of an agenda? No. It’s the paint I’ve been given.
5. You create very plausible male characters. Not every writer can manoeuvre themselves into a shirt that buttons the other way but you seem to have the knack. Does this come from detailed observation of men (for example, years of hanging on Rob’s every word) or is it the lurking tomboy within?
There’s a lot of it in the tomboy! Unless I am writing about someone who is distinctly like me, it’s as much of a feat of imagination to put myself into the shoes of a female character as a male. I mean, I do observe hard and use my empathy radar all the time – I could have been a psychiatrist at the age of 8 – but, probably like many people, some groups within my own gender are more alien to me than groups from the other one. I’d like to think humanity will evolve to have a third gender (Middlesex?) which will be characterised by a stable and moderate level of hormones. They will be able to cut themselves off emotionally from difficult situations and get the job done, but they will also be able to remember that, for example, in a conversation it never hurts to make some gesture of acknowledgement when the other person speaks, even if you have nothing to add at this time. Or that offering to make a cup of tea is a loving, considerate act that is worth doing for its own sake and not because of the bedroom brownie points.
6. Without being too ungallant, you’re galumphing towards the age traditional for questioning what it’s all about and feeling driven to write the Century’s Great Novel that will Explain Everything. Are you in that phase yet or out the other side into the sunlit uplands of Wisdom and Maturity?
I’ve had a novel in my system for over ten years now. I wrote a full draft of it when I was about 19 – I don’t think I have it any more, or at least not a complete copy. They do say, don’t they, that everyone’s first novel is going to be autobiographical? I’ve just come back to it after a break of a year and seen a way to tackle ‘The Problem,’ with it. I can’t help feeling that my seeing the problem isn’t just to do with the coming back to it with fresh eyes, but because of where I am now in my life. I have a perspective that the novel was feeling for, but couldn’t quite get to before. But it’s not directly about my experience, it’s a metaphor again – the people I would have liked to have known, the places I would have liked to have been. Within that, though, true experiences are rejigged and reimagined.
7. To what extent does a story need to advance an argument? Can it just be a series of inconsequential events or is an implicit moral thrust essential to you?
A piece of writing that is just a series of inconsequential ideas is not a story. That’s not to devalue it, but otherwise it’s like saying a pony is just a small horse. It’s not, they’re different animals. I like stories to have a story behind the story. I have a floating quote from some writer saying that ‘A story is always two stories.’ It’s not just about having something interesting happening on the surface, there needs to be another story running below. That’s when the story gets pinned to an authentic character, not just an Everyman in that situation and when you find it, the story usually falls into place because you can hand things over to that character. But, moral? I’d be wary of that. Most people don’t like to be preached at. I do think, though, a lot of writers, myself included, write to work something out – and in both senses – ‘work out’ as in get out of the system, but also as in to come to a new understanding. I think good writers are generally very good worriers.
8. Lie down on this couch here and draw me a Venn Diagram showing the overlap between the three personae; Jolly Mollie the social creature, Writer Moll and The Real Moll.
Do you have any idea how hard it is not to be glib here? For that very reason I shall settle down and do it properly…
9. Is life the pursuit of happiness or fulfilment?
It’s the pursuit. And happiness is enjoying the pursuit. Only, it’s not a pursuit is it, it’s the being in the now. That’s as Zen as I want to get in public.
10. You’ve said you’re not particularly comfortable writing poetry, yet song-writing is every bit as figurative; what’s going on there? Isn’t there a case for a prose-writer to dabble in poetry, if only as an exercise in concision, sensory observation and metre?
There’s definitely a case for prose-writers to dabble in other forms and likewise for writers of other forms to dabble in prose. A pet peeve of mine is the idea that ‘writing is words in order; poetry is the best words in the best order.’ To me that suggests that writing prose is just a splurge with no ear for rhythm, no eye for pattern and order. Not so. Sometimes we might call ‘poetic prose,’ that writing that is perhaps a little overblown, but surely it is prose that works to get the heft of individual words and phrases and maintain a certain grace. I think I am noticing in people’s responses to my song-writing that the lyrics have weight in relation to the melody and instrumentation – for want of a better term, a literary quality. I don’t think this is unusual for many songwriters though. You need, I think, a different ear for lyric than poem. In a lyric, a word is not just a kind of molecule consisting of stressed and unstressed syllables, it’s the duration of each syllable, the pitch, and the tone altogether. At the same time, there is an added freedom with a lyric. For instance, it’s a lot easier to fix a line that has too few syllables in a lyric than it is in a poem – you just hold it for a bit longer! Although I know many would differ, I don’t find that poems make good lyrics or vice versa. You can usually tell which is which. Think of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ Beautiful writing, but on the page the rhythm screams ‘Lyric!’ Nowt wrong with that, though.
11. We haven’t talked much about music. Do you see yourself developing as a lovelorn singer-songwriter or band-fronting strumpet? Or both?
Band-fronting strumpet sounds a lot more fun than being a lovelorn singer songwriter. And to be fair, I was even starting to bore myself. I’m very happy to be working with Rob, Si and Harv. It’s thrilling to see songs that I’ve written maybe ten years ago suddenly given their full dimensions. I think I’m also at a time where I can stand behind the songs with the assertion and perspective that they need. I started performing when I was eighteen, I’m thirty-two now – it’s been a while. I probably need to get some things out my system.
12. At the commercial end, the female acts get regressively glitzier and wigglier, inexorably sliding from the Sugababes to Girls Aloud to the Pussycat Dolls and Simon Cowell is probably, even now, working to bring the Clitty Kitties to our exhausted screens. It’s hard to imagine a Janis Joplin (or even an Elvis Costello) making it today. Did video kill the radio star? TLR is providing you with a space to fulminate.
I don’t mind pop music. I just wish it would keep it down – it’s like the loud, drunk one at the party. It doesn’t half clamour for attention. But sooner or later you’ll see people quietly moving away and striking up their own conversations. Same for music, I’d say. There might be some people go home embittered that the popular ones didn’t pay them more attention, but there’re an awful lot of others who are quite happy to live and let live. If some want something different they just need to get louder and only say things that they know the Others will approve of. Sounds like hard work to me. I think it’s interesting to watch the waves move through the local music scene as different generations get the bit between their teeth. It reminds me of when students go to Uni and buy a poster of a childhood T.V. programme. In my day it was Thundercats, these days it’s the Teletubbies. There has been some criticism of the Lancaster-scene being too folky-centric and I can see why that might be felt. My response to that is the music scene is who steps forward. And it’s never permanent. The more new sounds and ideas come in, the better.
(This interview can also be found in the Artist Profile section where it will form part of the ‘Chain reaction’ series).