Friday 23 June 2017
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WITH ALIS HAWKINS
Alis Hawkins, author of None So Blind, takes a turn in the stocks, answering a few questions.
None So Blind was featured on the blog yesterday - here.
Is the writing full time? If not what is/was the day job?
I can’t afford to write full time but I actually quite like the balance of going out to work and staying in to write. I work two days a week for the National Autistic Society running a family support project.
From a bit of “googling” I see you had a historical novel - Testament previously published. Similarly, None So Blind is a historical novel, do you find yourself drawn to write more about the past than contemporary times?
Yes. I’ve always been fascinated by social history, and I get to do a lot of really absorbing research for my books – the kind of stuff no course in history would ever teach you. On any given day I can be looking in to when the first public toilets were introduced (1851 during the Great Exhibition), the most likely route a man riding a horse (as opposed to travelling in a carriage) would have taken between two towns in West Wales ( I have a lot of facsimile 1831 OS maps defaced by highlighter pen and sprouting post-its like scabby eczema) and what implement kids used when they were practising writing on their slates (clue: not chalk).
Its not that I shy away completely from setting stories in the present day –Testament is a split time narrative in which half the action takes place in the modern world and the other half in the fourteenth century – I just don’t get such a buzz out of it. To me, twenty-first century people aren’t as fascinating as people from the past. I know what we’re like, I have to find out what they were like.
Would you have liked to have been born in a previous era?
Absolutely not. No period before the later twentieth century was remotely acceptable in its treatment of women. And that’s without mentioning life without sanitation, central heating, electricity, anaesthesia or antibiotics!
Was Testament a mystery/crime novel or something else entirely?
There’s no real crime element but there is a historical mystery that has to be solved in the present day. It’s set in a fictitious medieval university city called Salster. (I was going to set it in Oxford but the level of research required would have added another 2 years to the writing time, so I decided to invent my own city which turned out to be much more fun.) The fourteenth century element concerns Simon of Kineton, a master mason who’s been commissioned to built a revolutionary college and his struggles to do so (basically, the all-powerful church isn’t keen), while the contemporary story follows its head of marketing, Damia Miller, as she tries to save the college from financial ruin by following a trail from a newly-uncovered medieval wall painting in the Great Hall through the archives to the story of the master mason’s ‘cursed’ son.
Have you always written?
Pretty much, one way or another. But I think that to be a successful historical writer takes time – you really need to understand people in your own time before you can begin to imagine what they were like in somebody else’s.
What’s your typical writing schedule?
I do my best work in the morning and evening, so, if I’m writing new stuff, I tend to work pretty consistently from 9 till 1, then do other stuff in the afternoon – social media, this kind of writing, housework, etc – then get back to the book at about 5 and work till 7, usually working through what I did in the morning. If I’m editing, I like to get immersed in the book and I’ll work 12 hours a day if I can. The more your editing is broken up, the more you miss and the less well you can see the whole structure and flow of the book.
Of course, some days less writing gets done and more research, or planning. But I’m not too hung up on word counts. As long as what I’m doing is moving the book forward in some way, I’m happy.
Have you inserted family, friends or colleagues into any of the characters in your books?
No. A friend did ask if she could be in the next book and I had to explain that I don’t base my characters on real people because I don’t feel as if I’m making them up. They just appear, fully formed. Even walk-on parts spring to life in my mind like real people who’ve always been there and whom I just hadn’t met before. I have no sense of making them up at all.
Are you a plotter or a make it up as you go along sort? I think I can answer my own question, I’m guessing with historical fiction, research is key?
Research is key, of course, but that doesn’t mean I’m a plotter. I do a lot of research about a general area before I start, and some ideas for plot will come from that research. But then, once I’ve got going on the book, I’ll research as I go and as needed. The main thing about research is not to get things wrong rather than making sure you include it all – that’d make books both long and tedious.
In terms of plotting, I’ll have a starting point, a few waystops and, usually, an idea of an ending but any of those things are up for grabs as I write. In the book I’m writing at the moment (book 3 in the Teifi Valley Coroner series) the person I thought was the murderer has just turned out not to be and I’m not sure, yet, who will turn out to have done it. Stephen King once said that if you, as the writer, aren’t surprised by your book, neither will the reader be. I want my readers to be surprised, and I want to feel surprised and excited myself – otherwise writing would be dull. Plotting in detail, for me, ruins any element of surprise.
How much research did you undertake before setting down to write None So Blind?
Probably about 9 months. I had to learn not only about the Rebecca Riots but about the whole social context of rural West Wales in the 1850s.
How long did None So Blind take from conception to completion?
I’ve been wanting to write a book set during the Rebecca Riots for a long time so, in that sense, I suppose it’s been gestating away for many years. But once I’d settled down to tackle it, 9 months or so for research and another 18 to get it written. However, we did move house during the 18 months and I was on painting, decorating and project management duty for 10 weeks so probably could have done it in nearer 15 months.
Did the end result differ greatly from how you envisaged it?
In terms of being able to tell a story which allowed me to look at the effects of a months of civil disobedience on people, no. One of the reasons I wrote None So Blind was to find out what it felt like to get wrapped up in events that were moving beyond your control and I think that comes over in the book. But in terms of the plot – the actual events I use to tell the story of the Riots – the book took on a life of its own, as my books always do. Characters became more important than I’d thought, they did things I hadn’t foreseen and the central relationship between Harry and John became much more nuanced than the simple sleuth-and-sidekick that I’d envisaged when the idea for the book first came to me.
Do you have further books planned involving the main players in None So Blind? Will we be seeing more of Harry Probert-Lloyd and John Davies in the future?
Absolutely! My publishers have already bought book two – provisionally titled In Two Minds – and I’m writing book three at the moment.
Any unpublished gems in your bottom drawer?
It’s not for me to say whether it’s a gem or not but I do have a psychological thriller set during the time of the Black Death on my hard drive. It’s called The Black and the White and I’m really rather fond of it. My current publisher may not be the right home for it, but we’ll have to see. Watch this space.
What’s the current project in progress? How’s it going?
Harry and John, book three. The apparently accidental death of a much-loved school teacher turns out to be something much more sinister. It’s going OK but, because of the timescale to which books are produced, I have been interrupted quite a lot in the writing of it by getting In Two Minds ready for my publishers. It’s not always easy working on the editing of one book while you’re trying to write another with the same characters, sometimes you’re apt to forget what belongs where!
What’s the best thing about writing?
Dorothy Parker famously said that she didn’t like writing, she liked having written and I know what she meant. Producing new work – literally making something out of nothing – can be a real slog. You begin to see how 20% of the calories you consume every day are used by your brain. For me, the most enjoyable thing about writing is re-writing, working on draft two of the book. You’ve knocked your ideas into a roughly novel-shaped thing and now you need to work to refine and streamline those ideas into the most fluid form you can – the right words, the right scenes, the right pace. I love that process.
Those days when your brain-space seems to be taken up by all the other stuff in your life and you’re trying to work out what happens next in draft one. It’s like trying to hear the radio through bad static. You know it’s all there, but you really can’t hear it and the more you try, the more wound up and frustrated you get. That’s when I just go for a walk and see if that clears the signal.
What are the last five books you’ve read?
Between the Crosses by Matthew Frank
The Fireman by Peter May
Daughters of Gentlemen by Linda Strattmann
Remember No More by Jan Newton
Dark Asylum by ES Thomson
Who do you read and enjoy?
Unsurprisingly, I read a lot of crime and I enjoy lots of the different sub-genres but not all my top authors write crime fiction. Here are my top 10 in alphabetical order:
Is there any one book you wish you had written?
No. Just a load of books I really admire and learn from.
Favourite activity when not working or writing?
Reading (alone), walking (with my partner) playing silly games (with my family)
What’s the last film you watched that rocked you?
Pride – the true story of the London-based group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and their relationship with a mining community in South Wales during the 1984 Miners’ strike. It’s fantastic – touching, funny, thought-provoking, and the end always makes me cry (in a good way.)
TV viewer or not? Is there anything that is must-watch TV in the Hawkins’ household?
I love Nordic Noir – I was glued to The Killing, The Bridge and Trapped. Same goes for Broadchurch and Hinterland. But our recent favourite was No Offence, the black comedy crime drama starring Joanna Scanlan and Elaine Cassidy. That and Mock the Week are definitely un-missable. Oh, and we do love a bit of property-porn especially Grand Designs. Mourning the passing of Bake Off.
Any writing aspirations for a couple of years’ time...
I’d really like to see The Black and The White published. And Harry and John’s Teifi Valley Coroner series thriving, obviously!