Saturday 3 March 2018

Interview with Tony Williams

Tony Williams’s All the Bananas I’ve Never Eaten won the Saboteur Award for best short story collection. His poetry includes The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street and The Midlands. He lived in Sheffield for more than a decade before moving to rural Northumberland and is an academic teacher of creative writing. His debut novel, Nutcase, was published in 2017.

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: How do you get started on a new book? 

TW: With a great deal of confusion, false starts, procrastination, doubt and hubris. You have so many ideas, and they seem so promising (they have to, or you wouldn’t embark on them), but once you get started you see very quickly that they won’t work, or they’re not a book’s worth of idea. With poems and short stories it’s easier – an idea for a long poem or sequence boils down to a single-page poem, and that’s fine; you come to expect it. The difficulty comes when you end up with half a book, and then you have to decide whether you can build it into more or strip it back to something smaller.

With a novel (and this comes with the caveat that I’ve only published one) it’s a bigger problem – you have to write enough of it to be able to make a judgement on whether it’s going to work or not, but once it’s not going to work, you really want to abandon or fix it as soon as possible, so you’re not wasting effort. Though there’s probably no better learning process for a writer than to write a novel from start to finish, even if, maybe especially if, it’s not going to get published – that’s your prentice-work. I’ve an unfinished manuscript of 120,000 words somewhere, which will probably never see daylight, and it turns out I made all the mistakes in there so that I might not make them next time.

I think you know, once you’re a few sessions into writing something, whether it has potential. That feeling, when you’re writing, that you know where it will go. I don’t mean planning a plot, but having a sense, a vision, of what the whole thing will be. If you’ve got that, and it makes you smile, you’re probably on a good thing. I hate all that elevator pitch stuff, but you have to have a private pitch you can make to yourself, possibly wordless, a mirage, or a vision of a monument that you can show to yourself and say, ‘Let’s build that.’ And then the engineer in you comes out, and you start to look to see if it’s possible, this monument, or will it topple over in high winds.

I work in Scrivener, and I have seven or eight project files on the go. Every now and then I look through them, to re-evaluate, and think about what might be worth more work. (I also have one that I’m actively working on at the moment, trying to write a couple of hundred words a day.)

LW: What led you to the Icelandic saga of Grettir the Strong?  

TW: What got me started was reading. I picked up a saga at random a few years back and got hooked. Reading Icelandic sagas was this weird experience, where half the time I was thinking how bored I was, and yet I couldn’t put the book down. The sagas are very like novels in some ways – they’re about how people are shaped by social forces, and about how actions have consequences – and yet totally unlike them in others: their pace is relentless, and they never tell us how the characters feel and think. So, the more I read of these medieval not-quite-novels, the more I started to think about how I could learn from them. Could I write a novel in the style of a saga? 

The point was not to take on the subject matter. I didn’t want to write a novel about Vikings. It was more about writing a saga about contemporary life. So, I looked for a way to make the saga style work in a non-medieval context. At first, I thought I could just take some of the features I admired and use them in a novel: things like the pace and the external focus. But that didn’t really work. For one thing, the saga features got diluted, and I ended up with fiction that was just a bit quicker than usual; it was hard to keep up the discipline when all the other elements of the novel were tending towards a conventionally detailed, discursive approach. And I began to see that you couldn’t take one or two elements out of the saga, anyway, and expect them to play the same role, to mean the same thing. The sagas of Icelanders are an artistically mature genre, and they work the way they do because of the way they bring technical features together, not because of one or two features in isolation. 
So, I realised I needed to stick to the model much more closely, and the obvious way to do that was to choose a specific saga and adapt it into a contemporary setting, keeping the style and underlying structure. Grettir’s saga was then an obvious choice, because it’s really a very simple story, a tragedy in fact: the young man whose talent for violence makes him a hero but ultimately leads to his doom. 

Violence plays a very different role in our society from the role it played in medieval Iceland, where it was an accepted part of legal dispute resolution. But God knows violence is still something we live with. So, I turned Grettir into Aidan, a young vigilante living on a rough estate in Sheffield, and then the challenge of the book was to find out how the same story could play out convincingly in the modern context.

LW: A “hero” can be defined as a character with a singleness of purpose. Do you prefer your “hero’s” purpose to be dark or light in a story?  

TW: I’m not sure I mind, except that as we know the devil has all the best tunes. Nutcase is a tragedy in the classical sense, because Aidan’s talent for and propensity to violence is arguably what dooms him. (Or you could say he’s doomed anyway by his situation, that he has no real choices to make). The book’s got jokes, but it’s a tragedy. But some of my favourite books are comedies in that their heroes go through life almost invulnerably – picaresques like The Good Soldier Švejk and Simplicissimus, Moll Flanders and Humphrey Clinker

But although I do think of Grettir/Aidan in this way as a tragic hero, I’m not sure the protagonist’s purpose or even trajectory is my main concern in reading or writing. I’m a bit wary of the whole bildungsroman view of the novel, that we’re there to see a character grow in some way over the course of 80,000 words. Actually, we often don’t learn, we just repeat the same mistakes (Moll Flanders, again). That’s one reason I like the sagas, I suppose – they’re about repetition and variation, rather than a narrative arc. In that sense they seem to me more realistic in the way they portray human character.

More generally I guess I do subscribe to the idea of the realist novel – not in terms of style, necessarily, but in terms of the impulse to say something about how the world is. Again, the sagas show us how feuds and behaviour are shaped by the social structure of medieval Iceland. The feuds aren’t just jolly battles between Vikings, they’re inevitable consequences of a nation without an executive arm of government. The realist novel is the novel that tries to show us how things really are (in that sense of course a fantasy novel can be realist). The more you get divorced from that, the more it becomes just about some individual hero learning something and "growing," the more it turns into meaningless escapism, a hero who is just a stand-in for the reader, having adventures. I don’t need that. I can daydream being a hero perfectly well on my own. 

LW: When writing, do you rely on your intuitions? 

TW: Always, in the first draft. I hardly plan. I make things up in the act of writing – I find myself making things up, and it goes in because it feels right. If it feels right it’s going in, and the reader will swallow it. If it doesn’t feel right, then no amount of accurate detail or rationalising will make it work. 

Even editing is a matter of feel. You do need to iron out inaccuracies, but what you’re really doing is going through and seeing if everything hangs together, and that’s a judgement you make in your gut. There’s one bit in Nutcase, one line, in particular, that bothers me, because the feeling isn’t right. I knew that, but I thought I could get away with it. And now I think about that and it bothers me, much more than typos do, because that’s the moment when the book loses confidence in itself, however briefly. I’m not telling you which bit. A reader might not notice – might think it’s iffy at other moments. But it bothers me.

LW: You lived in Sheffield for more than a decade. Is Nutcase something of a water-damaged love letter to the city? 

TW: Absolutely it is. I love Sheffield and loved living there, but also saw and experienced some darker days. Some of the time I lived in Norfolk Park and Manor, which I guess are "disadvantaged" areas in the professional jargon. We had a car written off by a passing joyrider or drunk. There was a stabbing next door but one. It was the usual stuff that you see in a city over time, depending on how unlucky you are and where you happen to live.
But it was just life, really, not subject matter. I was mainly writing poetry at the time, and although the city came into it, I wasn’t writing so much about the kinds of places and experiences that come into Nutcase. VS Naipaul’s great autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival talks about his arriving in London in the 1950s and wanting to be a writer, but not seeing till years later that his true subject matter was all around him. It was like that for me, in the sense that I never consciously wanted to write about Sheffield. But once I had the idea for the saga novel, the Sheffield I had known presented itself to me as a possible setting, and then in the writing I discovered that I was deeply interested in representing it. Setting became subject matter, and the original impulse, the stylistic challenge set by the sagas, became not an end in itself but a means to uncovering the difficult life of the city. So yes, a "water-damaged love letter" is a good description – it’s a love letter written with open eyes, in full knowledge of the place’s faults but also with immense affection.

LW: How much of your writing is based on personal experience? 

TW: Well, I don’t think anything in the novel actually happened. Looking at my short stories, there’s one which is fundamentally non-fiction, inasmuch as it simply narrates something that really happened. But there are others, and certain moments in the novel, which draw on personal experiences more or less obliquely. My wife can’t read the stories because she says she can just see where I got an idea from. Sometimes it’s an incident which you embellish or change, but often it’s a feel or a tone – so people I know from back then have said they recognise the atmosphere. In that sense lots of the writing is based on personal experience, but in the sense that personal experience provides a kind of imaginative hinterland which you can stare into, and that helps you make things up.

LW: What is your approach to the teaching of creative writing? 

TW: There’s (still) a lot of nonsense about whether you can teach creative writing. Of course you can – but there are limits. You can’t teach people to be brilliant novelists or to win the Nobel Prize, but then you can’t teach people to be Yehudi Menuhin either, and yet it’s obvious you can teach them to play the violin. You can teach technical skills, processes, attitudes; you can help people expand their horizons; you can help them understand themselves and the task ahead of them. It’s still up to them and their own resources to do the actual writing. 

It’s also important to understand that publication is not the only measure of success for a Creative Writing student. Many will crave that. But even the ones who achieve it will find that publication is a secondary reward of the art. The primary reward is doing it and taking delight in it. And the ones who don’t go on to publish haven’t failed. You can do a degree in marine biology and not go on to be a marine biologist. It’s about education – as a good in itself, and as a way of learning skills that you can take into the rest of your life.

In terms of my approach: I think it’s important to acknowledge ignorance. Failure and ignorance. I always say to new students, of poetry especially, who may be feeling intimidated by the whole thing, that most of what I write is rubbish. I write it and immediately put it aside. I might come back to it and salvage something, but if I don’t it doesn’t concern me. Writing is trying things out, playing around, and that’s only possible if you allow for total failure as a result that won’t deter you. 

So, I say to students, the first thing you write won’t strike you as being any good, but that’s OK. That’s how it is – you write the next thing, and then the next, and sometimes you write something you’re pleased with. One poem in ten (in a hundred, even) – that’s a good success rate. (With prose it’s different of course. You can’t keep trying out an idea and then starting again, or you’ll never finish a story. But keeping going with something that doesn’t work, just to get to the end, is madness too. To the prose writers I would counsel patience, but of course that’s the last thing anybody wants to hear).

All that’s about reducing the pressure writers put themselves under. But it’s also about eliding my own authority as a teacher. We’re conditioned to think of the people who teach us as experts, and they should be. But expertise in writing does not consist in being able to write perfectly every time. It’s not about infallibility or perfect judgement. It’s about knowing how to go about the practice of writing, and if that practice typically involves multiple, continual, soul-sapping, habitual failure – and great swathes of ignorance – then it’s important that we teach that too. And more than that – we have to acknowledge it in ourselves, or the students will think we’re patronising them. 

LW: How much do you compromise when working with an editor / publisher? 

TW: Sometimes I haven’t been asked to – they’ve taken what I’ve given them and run with it. But sometimes there are conversations – it can be difficult. Amicable, but difficult in the sense that sometimes they’re right, they make you get rid of a poem, say, and after the book’s published you see they were right to do so; but sometimes you wish you’d kept it in. I try to be pragmatic. I would walk away if I felt strongly, even if my default position is being pathetically grateful.

LW: Have you ever “hit the wall” or given up on a big writing project?  

TW: All the time. Like I say, writing is 90% failure, or it feels like it anyway. The big projects I’ve given up on are novels. (Poetry manuscripts just tend to evolve, with the failures dropping out and new poems going in until the book is finished). I’ve a 120K project, unfinished, which I don’t think will ever come together even though I still love the idea. I’ve several more or less complete novels lying about which I’ll probably not go back to. There comes a point I think when you see that a project isn’t going to work, or rather that making it work would be a bigger job than just starting something new.

It’s heart breaking to give up on something. All that investment wasted. But it gets easier. And, of course the investment isn’t really wasted, because you learn from failures most of all. The next thing will be better because this one was worse.

LW: Looking back on Nutcase, what are its strengths and weaknesses?

TW: I don’t think I can answer that! I’m too close to it still; you always rate your last book better than the rest of them. What I like about it is the variety of responses readers have had to it. Some readers read it as a comedy, and some as this bleak and brutal indictment of the times. It’s supposed to be both, of course, and I like the fact that it supports both readings. In terms of weaknesses – well, I don’t want to provide ammunition. I’m sure readers, if I’m lucky enough to have them, will point the book’s shortcomings out.

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

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