AM: Megan, we’ve known each other for nine or so years, ever since you joined the reading group that I had set up in Nottingham a couple of years earlier. Since then, I reckon we have as a group discussed the best part of a hundred novels. But you have also published three of your own in that time. What’s the latest one called? And can you tell us a little about it?
MT: ‘The Lives of Ghosts’ was released in April by Weathervane Press. It’s about a woman returning to the scene of a childhood tragedy in order to finally confront the reality of what happened there. I wanted to play with the idea of being haunted, and about the stories we tell ourselves. I also wanted to write about a loch. And about pregnancy. And so I did J
You’ve been writing for nearly your whole life too Andy, and of course, aside from your academic books, have had your own brilliant collection published since I’ve known you. For me, writing and reading provide an outlet like no other. A sanctuary, a salvation at times (aside from being just totally enjoyable). Can I assume it’s similar for you?
AM: That’s a really hard question for me. It is only very recently that I have begun to construe myself as a ‘writer’ and to have any sense that what I have been producing could in any way be seen as ‘a body of work’. How do you bundle together academic and professional papers and books with the occasional poem and fairly autobiographical prose piece, and then with a daily diary kept fairly regularly since 1967? The nearest I can get to seeing a coherent emotional response to it is in terms of a craft. I get a real buzz and always have from ’making’ something with words. I maybe should have been a sculptor, when I write I feel as if I am initially hacking something out of a formless bulk of material, shaping and fashioning it, first with fairly blunt blows until eventually finishing it off with some fine-grained polishing and dusting. I enjoy holding the finished product in my hands and always love the sense of mystery about my part in its coming into being. There’s obviously a large psychological dimension to this ‘authoring’ business but it is the labour of shaping and fashioning that I love (and, almost at the same time sometimes, hate).
But the one area in which I am an absolute beginner is fiction which is very much your forte. You have been remarkably prolific of late and I’m wondering about the origins and development of this aptitude and hard work ethic. I’m guessing you may have been creating stories since childhood? Am I right? Can you say a little about the beginning and early stages of your development as a writer?
MT: Yes. As so many children do, I was making stories with pictures before I could read (I was quite a late reader, about 7, I didn’t mind, I really liked playing with those sentence-makers, though once I uncovered the reading trick, I couldn’t stop). There were a lot of pictures, I loved drawing and quickly began creating comic strips – mostly involving the secret life of my cat. When I was ten, I thought I’d write a novel. It was called ‘Villa of Fear’, and was of course graphically illustrated and involved a wide variety of body parts, mostly ‘hanging by fleshy threads’ (I watched a lot of Hammer House of Horror – this is quite an embarrassing interview). Basically, alongside reading, I was addicted to making stories (however rubbish) too. It’s almost a compulsion, and definitely a comfort and what you said about the ‘sense of mystery’ twanged very true for me…
I kept writing throughout my teens, but it was all pretty secretive. Having children in my early twenties, writing became even more important, most probably in a selfish way. It was my time, my escape – but also I tried sending pieces out for the first time. I can vividly remember dancing around my council flat with my first baby (now 16!) when I had a story shortlisted in the London Writers’ Competition.
AM: Gosh, what you have said triggers some very early memories of my own. I don’t think I spent a lot of time writing as a child but at around 8 or 9 years of age I did start producing a comic that I intended to sell to my younger brother for 2d (old money) on a weekly basis. I ran out of patience, and presumably ideas, two thirds of the way down the first page of the first issue so cut my losses and coerced him into paying 1d for a page with some empty frames at the bottom and an incomplete story. And I too started a novel, a little later than you at about 12, a murder mystery set in a country house. I don’t think my style was particularly impressive, certainly nothing to match those ‘fleshy threads’. But, by cunning authorial manipulations I was steering my readers to all dump the blame for the murder onto the gypsy encampment just beyond the edge of the country estate and away from the outwardly oh-so respectable killer in the very midst of the country house guests. I gave that up too, after about 4 pages, so I never got the chance to relish the fruits of my cleverness in the final denouement.
That’s where the similarities between our journeys begin and end though. Before we get on to your published novels, I wonder whether we can just fill any remaining gaps first. I like the notion of your dancing round your flat, babe in arms, at the news of your London short listing and I know that you won a Yeovil first novel award in 2007 for ‘How We Were Lost’. What other writing did you do in between these two events? Was there a series of steps along the way, were there any other publications?
MT: Haha! I love your early endeavors, your blank framed comic sounds positively post-modern, and your novel where the gypsies didn’t do it – revenge on Enid Blyton maybe?
Between the London Writers Prize and Yeovil, I wasn’t published, mostly just pre-occupied with children, jobs, and trying to understand the idea of growing up (I was in my twenties, I’ve long ago given up any hope of comprehending that one). I did attempt a novel though, ‘Milk’, which will stay happily holed up in the roof space forever.
I never stopped loving writing, it was frequently my escape – but it was only when I moved to Nottingham from London that I thought this is it, I’m going to go for it. I was suddenly not working, my youngest was still in nappies, we’d chased my then-partner’s dream job and I started wondering what do I really want too?
I applied for an MA in Creative Writing (online, distance-learning so it could fit around family) with Manchester Metropolitan University. On the back of some short stories, I was accepted, but then all our fee money fell through. I deferred a year, began writing what was to become ‘How We Were Lost’ and in the summer of 2006, just before my MA’s new start date, it was placed second in the Yeovil Prize (I didn’t win!) but things began then. There was the course, which was amazing, and then in 2007, the offer of publication from Flame. I was incredibly lucky.
AM: I’m incredibly impressed. I remember hearing Lesley Glaister, the Sheffield-based author, talk some years ago about how she got her small children ready for primary school and then took them there before returning home, getting back into bed and writing for a number of hours each day. She contrasted the simple, nurturing activities in her role as mother with the fiction she was creating, stories that sometimes examined very dark elements of human nature. Also, Anne Tyler has given a very rare interview recently and voiced the view that balancing writing with motherhood probably leads to ‘different looking brains’ as a result of the thorough ‘compartmentalising’ that has to take place.
What are your thoughts on these matters (not necessarily the brain morphology bit)? How have you managed to be so prolific? How have you organised your time so that you can put the hours in and how easy has it been to step into and out of the world of the imagination?
MT: In terms of the practicalities, I have long been getting up early (often in the dark) in order to outfox the children and the general expectations of each day. This works very well for me as I find writing easiest in the mornings – I’m a terrible fiddler and frequently become impatient if I’m working in the evenings; I’m too tired and full of the day by then. There also may be something in the whole idea of being a bit half-asleep when writing early, in that your dreams are closer and possibly your imagination sharper too…
I’m also fortunate in that I work part-time so usually have about an hour after I’ve dropped my youngest at school before I need to set off for my job. Now and then I’ve been able to escape on writing retreats too. Scotland’s wonderful Cove Park http://covepark.org/residencies/fielding-retreats
with its cubes and solitude and sheer stunning beauty has provided some amazing space over the last couple of years.
Having said that, I do carry a notebook with me all the time (clichéd writer that I am) and spend a lot of time daydreaming my novels – in that way, I don’t think I’m very compartmentalized. The stories frequently spill into everything else.
What about you Andy? Do you need solitude for writing? Escapes? Have you established a routine?
AM: Hmm, early mornings, you’re another one. There’s a conversation with David Duncombe on this blog, posted in March, where he describes having been able to get up at 5am and write for a couple of hours before setting off to work as the head of a busy comprehensive school. He also informs me that Trollope had a similar schedule. I’m full of admiration for all of you. And, in your case Megan, for also being able to seize and make productive use of an hour here and there and for keeping your notebook beside you all the time. Cliched or not, it’s an approach that is certainly working, given your productivity over recent years.
You ask about my approach – and I wish you hadn’t. I don’t think I have ‘an approach’ really, it feels like rather chaotic fits and starts. But as I reflect on it, I suppose it has varied depending on the type of thing I have been writing. Basically, with shorter pieces such as poems, essays and academic papers, I have usually had one or two sustained sessions to get a structure and some of the first draft down. Then half an hour or so on a subsequent day taking a word or line out to see what it looked like, walking around musing on it for a while, then half an hour or so the next day putting it or something else back in – all great fun. I loved being away with the fairies half the time, or at least away with the similies. Longer pieces, my PhD and the fiction/memoir I’m writing at the moment, I find far more tortuous. They seem to take me forever (I’m talking decades almost rather than years) and, when I don’t get on with them, they assume dreadful, ennui-, and nausea-inducing proportions. So, I remain a deep admirer of you novelists who get the books written and also of many of my past students who have produced superb theses and dissertations in very respectable times.
Let’s change the subject. You have three books published now,you are a speaker and workshop leader and are involved in the organisation of various literary events. What are the next big projects in the pipeline and where do you want to take your writing career next?
MT: Many exciting things coming up! I’m reading something ghosty on October 31st at the Broadway (www.broadway.org.uk), on the first night of their annual Hallowe’en film and arts celebration, Mayhem. I was very fortunate to take part in this last year too – terrifying, exhilarating, I can’t wait.
I’m also talking ‘Ghosts and Stories’ for Nottingham’s Readers’ Day on November 3rd, and will be involved in a couple of events for the Festival of Words next February (Nottingham’s a fabulous, supportive place to be a writer).
Am writing too, of course! I’m currently involved in a fourth novel, although this is mostly for me, without any thought of publication. It’s far more personal than my other books – although fiction nonetheless (I lack your memoir courage!). However I’ve just interrupted myself by writing a short ghost story (though The Lives of Ghosts came out a few months back now, it seems that they’re still everywhere J) There’s a further novel idea kicking about too, which hopefully, should be fun…
So, lots to keep me busy and to be very grateful for. You’ve been doing a number of reading events too Andy – how are you finding it all?
AM: Well done! You have become a notable figure on the Nottingham literary scene and beyond – and it’s well deserved.
I’ve been having fun too since I published ‘While Giants Sleep’ at the end of 2011. As well as a launch that went very well, I’ve shared a platform with Tricia Durdey, a talented local writer, at one of Wirksworth’s annual ‘Meet the Authors’ evenings and have jointly presented two evenings with the excellent playwright, Graham Sellors, at Wirkworth’s Fringe Festival. And, like you, I will be doing something at Nottingham’s Festival of Words next February- a session called ‘Climbing Through Life’. So, all very exciting and none of it imaginable only a year or so ago.
Back in the early summer I heard you and Alison Moore talking about your new novels on a shared platform at Nottingham University. And now, as we are concluding this conversational interview, Alison is on the final shortlist of 6 for this year’s Mann Booker prize. Hopefully, Megan, it is only a matter of time now before we see you up there in a similar position?
Well done again and thank you so much for taking part in this conversation.