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We were so excited to publish The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, our second Red Button title. A quirky and beautiful novella, The Anchoress will appeal to fans of Alison Moore and Julian Barnes. We’re delighted to have an exclusive interview with Paul on our blog today. Read on for more:
Q: Maggie is the modern-day Anchoress in the book as she locks herself inside her closet/bathroom and refuses to come out. What gave you the inspiration for Maggie?
PAUL: As is the case for many writers, my central character, Maggie, is a version of myself, albeit transformed and fictionalized. She’s wrestling with issues—introversion, isolation, the shortcomings of language, and how to connect with the world — with which I’ve wrestled. So one way of looking at The Anchoress is as a thought experiment, a what-if?
My inspiration for writing the novella came from my own situation. Maggie’s house, sub-divided and with its L-shaped bathroom/walk-in closet, is based on the first place I lived when I moved to America. That was a time in my life when, for various reasons (work visas, geography, lack of a car), I was quite isolated for a time. I didn’t resort to the closet myself, but, in a less dramatic way, I did face Maggie’s dilemma: whether to withdraw further from the world or to reach out for connection.
Q: Your book Handover was published last year and is about British ex-pats living in Hong Kong during the transition of power to China. You lived and worked in Hong Kong and also in Lisbon, your hometown London and now the United States. Do you think your many different homes have coloured your writing over the years?
PAUL: Travelling to different places stimulates the senses. You look at things more closely (and listen, smell, etc.) and so they inscribe themselves on memory. As a writer, you’re then challenged to capture something of their essence. Or, to put things more simply, it’s more fun to write about Hong Kong than it would be to write about the London suburb where I was brought up (Upminster, at the tail-end of the District Line). I might set a story in Upminster, but the setting wouldn’t be such a strong element there. Lisbon is a city where I lived for a year more than 20 years ago, but it remains vivid in my memory. I’d like to set a book there. Actually, there’s a very good Lisbon book already: Night Train to Lisbon
Q: The Anchoress is a novella and you are also a prolific short-story writer. Short fiction is becoming increasingly popular for the digital audience. What attracts you to writing short fiction, why do you feel drawn to it as a writer?
PAUL: For some reason (maybe I have limited patience or a limited attention span) I’m interested in how short a story can be while still achieving its impact. I’m a miniaturist by nature; I’m never happier than when I discover a redundant word or paragraph or page that I can then delete. This tendency may have been enhanced by my experience as a journalist.
I like to be inspired, and then to be able to write a first draft in the flush of that inspiration. Temperamentally, I’m less inclined to the steady, 500-words-a-day slog that’s involved in novel-writing. As a reader, too, I appreciate concision. Novellas can be read in three or four hours, at a single sitting. That’s a great experience. Some of my favourite works are novellas: Death in Venice, The Ballad of the Sad Café, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Chekhov’s The Duel. For a long time, the market and custom have dictated that what we read should be novels of about 300 pages. But how many times have you read a novel that started out brightly only to sag and lose your interest after 50 or 100 pages? I’m not against the novel, merely the tyranny of the novel.
Q: You are writer in residence at Rutgers University in New Jersey. What does a typical day look like?
PAUL: I have a long commute, 75 miles each way, but luckily I’m only on campus three days a week. Those three days are pretty busy though: teaching creative writing and non-fiction, advising, writing letters or recommendation, preparing, conferencing, a whole heap of emails! What I most enjoy is the student contact; the students at Rutgers, and especially in the honors program, are so smart and enthusiastic. Above all, I relish that interaction. Writing involves a whole lot of sitting by oneself in a room.
Q: Many writers feel that creative writing is not something that can be “taught”. What is your response to that?
PAUL: This is a question that comes up commonly, and I think the jury is still out to some extent. The question reminds me of Socrates, who was always going around asking whether virtue can be taught; he’d have had a field-day if he’d ever run into a creative writing teacher. What I would say is that there’s no substitute for having read widely. Some students just write well because they picked up so much through reading.
As a creative writing teacher, I have various strategies. One main one is to stimulate students through the use of liberating constraints; there’s nothing less inspiring than a blank sheet of paper and the prompt: Now write something. I also emphasize that writing is a process that requires many stages. So you have to banish your perfectionist to begin with, and then be prepared to seek feedback, read your work aloud, handle criticism, and stay with your draft through several rounds of serious revision. Most of the best stories I’ve written have taken me years to finish. A lot of that is about finding the right ending for them.
I think, in the end, creative writing teachers can help their students try different approaches and challenge them to make their work better. But there is such a thing as good, and bad, material. You need a good idea to start with.
Q: Which writers have inspired you most and why?
PAUL: This is a hard one; it’s like asking someone what music he/she likes. Often the answer depends on what mood I’m in.
In no special order: Lydia Davis, Alice Munro, Dickens, Chekhov, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Gertrude Stein, Kafka, Gogol, Camus, W.B. Yeats, Philip Larkin, Marvell, Auden, MacNeice, Adam Zagajewski. What do they have in common? I’d say they all write well (maybe Dickens doesn’t always!) and they all opened my eyes to something new that you could try with writing.
Q: What was the last book you read and loved?
PAUL: I’m currently reading my way through the collected poems of Philip Larkin. He’s a terrible old curmudgeon, of course, but I find that we share certain obsessions. I keep encountering thoughts that I’ve had myself, only expressed far more brilliantly. Like I was thinking about my penchant, as an atheist, for popping into old churches when I’m in England, and then I ran into Larkin’s poem “Church Going”.
Q: Tell us about what you are working on now.
PAUL: Right now, I’m working on some poems and short fiction. Next up, I want to work on a finished draft of my novel, Mister Spoonface. It explores issues of fatherhood in a world of assisted or artificial reproduction. After that, there’s another novella that I keep meaning to revisit — affectionately known by its working title, “Dead Baby”. Beyond there, I’ve no idea as yet. I hope it will be something quite different; I don’t like writing the same story twice. Maybe that Lisbon tale?
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To organise your own interview with Paul or to request a review copy please contact Caroline and Karen at: email@example.com
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