Derek Neale’s Writing Talk: Interviews with writers about the creative process is published by Routledge in April 2020. Here are some extracts from the Introduction and interviews:
Writing practice is a way of knowing the world, just as reading is. The production of knowledge in this context is threefold: it is to be found in the literary or media artefact itself (the novel, life writing, play or film), in reader or audience reception of such artefacts, and in the creative process, the journey involved in producing such work. This volume and these interviews have this latter focus: how knowledge is produced via the creative process. The interviews necessarily touch on writers’ oeuvres and particular works; they refer to the writers’ lives on occasion and pause on the perceptions of reader and audience. But the volume’s main gaze inevitably and repeatedly reverts to the creative process, its bits and pieces and its heterogeneity – it is after all a combination of multiple processes and many contradictory states of mind and types of provenance: cognisance and ignorance, naivety and intention, serendipity and research. Are stories made or are they found? These interviews investigate different responses to that double question.
Interviewees include: Alan Ayckbourn, Iain Banks, Helen Blakeman, Louis de Bernières, Sarah Butler, Andrew Cowan, Jenny Diski, Patricia Duncker, David Edgar, Tanika Gupta, Richard Holmes, Hanif Kureishi, Bryony Lavery, Toby Litt, Kareem Mortimer, Michèle Roberts, Jane Rogers, Willy Russell and Sally Wainwright.
Here are a few glimpses:
Louis de Bernieres
I tend to structure novels according to imaginary geometric considerations. I thought my first novel, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, was a trident where you had three storylines merging into one; and I thought of my second one as being more like a branch, with little twigs coming off it, or maybe like a river, with little streams coming in – so you had a main story with subsidiary stories coming in from the side. I think I rather grandly conceived of my third novel as being like the Eroica symphony, which is not exactly geometric. I can’t remember, now, whether that worked out very well, but it did give me a template. And I was thinking of Corelli as solid as a pyramid, so it started with a very broad base and lots and lots of characters, and as time went by it narrowed down, till you only had one or two left.
Once I finish a play, one is then completely empty. There’s an awful feeling of being un-pregnant, which for me is never very healthy, and sometimes this lasts for some weeks. And then you pray that you haven’t written your last. Then one morning, a tiny, tiny germ of an idea will arrive, and I hardly dare breathe, because I’m not quite sure, but it gives me a tingle of excitement. I always am a great believer that more than one idea needs to congregate. You can’t make babies on one idea. So, we then wait and see what happens, and usually something else will join it, if we’re lucky. Maybe it’s a character, maybe it’s a setting, maybe it’s something that complements the idea. And I think, yeah, that’s a great idea to write a play about the notion of leadership, what a good idea. But we’ve got to put it somewhere and then, wow, we could put it on a cabin cruiser on a river. That’s going to be fun. And those two ideas will suddenly gel. And that process will go backwards and forwards. I always compare it to a small boy with a marble or something. I put it away in my pocket and take it out and polish it occasionally.
It would be fantastically naïve of me to think that I was creating myself. I’ve been reading Montaigne a lot recently, because it relates to the book I’m writing now. He did have a notion that he was trying to write himself down. Nobody had really quite written themselves down and described themselves on the page in the same way before. It’s what everybody thinks they might be trying to do, but there’s always a slippage. You never do. You can’t possibly, because as soon as you’ve written yourself down, you’ve become someone else. You’ve become someone who’s written yourself down. It’s like you’re never going to catch up with that. It’s incredibly elusive.
I remember when my father died, there was a whole load of people that came to the house, weeping and wailing. It was a terrible, terrible time and as people were leaving, one of my uncles spoke to me and my brother, as we were standing by the door, completely devastated. And he said to us, ‘Make sure your mother is well seduced tonight’. And we went, ‘I beg your pardon?’ And he said, ‘No, no, I mean very well seduced’. And what he meant was sedated. ‘Make sure your mother is well sedated tonight’. But can you imagine it, at a time like that. And, of course, I put it into my play, The Waiting Room, and at the National Theatre.
Language always strikes me as a problem and a challenge; the words creative and creativity have a very benign complexion. They’re positive, happy- sounding words, and you imagine that anything that is creative is going to be enjoyable to do and enjoyable to consume. And yet, as a writer, every time I sit down before a blank page or a page full of language waiting to be revised and edited, I don’t often feel in a happy, positive frame of mind. I think what’s before me now is something that’s going to be very, very challenging and take a lot out of me, and it’s going to be a tussle.