An author Open Pen has maintained an open conversation with is Issue Five’s Mother’s Day writer David Gill. He’s always got something worth hearing about, and so editor Sean Preston caught up with David to see what sort of mood he was in. As it turned out, he was in the mood to talk about learning the craft of novel-writing the hard way, and writing about “everyday people”:
Mother’s Day, and another piece you submitted to us at the time called Cooking With Chicken like so many short stories of its nature, had such a realistic feel to it that you can’t help but feel as though it is lifted directly from the writer’s life. Is this something you find yourself doing when writing ‘fiction’?
I lift the place from what I know so in that sense yes. With characters and plots not so much although nothing can ever be a complete invention. My stories are set in Hackney where I live or Cardiff where I was brought up. I worked in Brixton for fifteen years and am starting to consider that as a location. It takes time to understand the rhythm of a place.
Character and plot and place are bound up, I can’t think of a place separate from a character or a character separate from a plot.
As for writing autobiographically I wouldn’t want to write a character that someone could recognise as themselves. That’s not fiction, it’s not storytelling, it’s just settling scores.
So why is it do you think that your characters and dialogue have a particularly realistic edge to them, as with Mother’s Day?
You get to know the characters and place and story, the rhythm of these things. I write about what’s around me, it wouldn’t occur to me to write about Lord Dim of Northampton. At that level it is not a conscious choice, I sit down and write what’s there for me to write.
The idea of choice is overblown.
Was Cooking With Chicken something that came naturally, or did you sit down to write something and formed it in that way?
I wanted to write a love story. I had a phrase in my head about a Buddha being used in a certain way, sometimes with short stories you get an idea of place, character, plot from a phrase in a moment in time and you build the story around that.
What are you currently writing? I was lucky enough to take a look at what looked a very promising first act to a novel. Any progress there?
Yes, it’s happening. Writing a novel isn’t a complete break from what I had been doing before, I’d been writing short stories for a couple of years. Moving from short stories to a novel gives me more space with the characters.
I have become more rigorous about making sure I sit down and write. It was tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, then I started to write short stories, now I’m working on a novel.
So you’ve probably learnt a lot about the editorial process then?
A novel is a different animal. It’s a huge animal. Short stories don’t need to be ‘right’ because if they turn out ‘wrong’ you’ve only wasted a few days. You have more invested in a novel. And there are some basic nuts and bolts to learn that are different from a short story: when to disclose stuff, when not to disclose.
After my initial stab at an opening, which you saw, I made myself write a plan of sorts. It was what it needed. I gave myself two weeks to write that down. I found that hard, I kept starting to write the scene instead of plotting it. I always felt when I sit down to write I should be writing so the planning was difficult but proved to be invaluable.
It gives me more control of the novel, it’s not in control of me. Having a plan stops me snatching at things. I mean some things need to be snatched at but not everything all the time. Having a plan helps in terms of pace. It also helps me to know when to write a thing. Writing out the plan was hard but I now feel the confidence I feel working on short stories.
So you’ve planned the whole novel?
Have you finished a full draft yet?
No. It’ll be finished by July. Then I’ll need to go over it. That’ll take until September.
Have you set aside time?
Before I go to work, a couple of hours in the morning. Two or three in the evening.
So whilst most people browse the internet and watch TV, you’re writing five hours a day?
Maybe I do all three. I’ll say this, the couple of hours I spend in the morning I write, the evening is more a free-for-all. Which for me is partly a cultural thing, I was brought up that way. You don’t watch TV in the morning. And you can’t overlook that in the evening you’re physically more tired as well.
OK, so once the novel is finished, what’s the plan? is there a plan… for that?
I’m one thing at a time, so first finish the novel. Thinking about getting it published, publishing currently seems to be a middle-class world and I’m not that. I’ll figure something out when that point comes. I’m just wary of the way publishing is set up.
Aren’t you looking to have the first novel published?
I would like for the book to be published. I would prefer if there was a different environment in which to publish but for the moment there isn’t.
How do you mean?
Publishing is a very middle-class world both in terms of the authors published and the people publishing them. It’s unusual to find people published who are working class.
I did some work on this, in February two years back I looked at all the novels reviewed by the Guardian Book Page. Not one of the books involved the working class or were written by a working class writer.
That’s just one month but unless there is something special about that February it suggests the working class and their world views are simple excluded from literature.
The impression I have, and it is only an impression, is that this has become worse over time. If you take Anthony Trollope, he of the country bishops, not what you would classify as a radical writer but in Dr. Thorne which I re-read recently he has a fully realised working class character in Roger Scatcherd.
You don’t see that in modern fiction where the working class are objects of pity or fear, if they appear at all.
So I assume you’re reading Trollope at the moment?
I re-read Dr. Thorne a couple of weeks ago. At the moment I’m reading Damon Runyon’s collection of short stories Guys And Dolls and Karl Sabbagh’s Riemann’s Zeos, a maths book.
Why reread? Have you run out of books?
Partly for comfort. Some of these books I’ve known since I was a child, it’s like walking down the same street, the street stays the same but you change.
How do the books change?
The books don’t change you do. In my case I got a bit more forgiving of characters, a bit more understanding. Now I buy books, as a kid we never did. We went to the library. Every week – my mum would kill me if didn’t say that.
One of the books I’ve known since I was a kid is Slaughterhouse 5. My dad actually bought that book. So that intrigued. Also reading the blurb I got that it was about aliens and soldiers, my dad’s family were soldiers and what boy wouldn’t enjoy aliens and soldiers?
I still have my dad’s copy.
Hmmm, yeah. I guess they realised that and have been making films about aliens and soldiers ever since.
That has got a little out of hand, sort of painting by number film. I can’t imagine coming back to one of those films the way I do to Slaughterhouse 5. When I first read Slaughterhouse 5 I never thought about class, everyone I knew was working class, I’d never met a middle-class person: so that was the world in which I first read Slaughterhouse 5.
Now when I read it my perspective has changed, the book hasn’t changed, and I am still connected to the boy who went looking for aliens and soldiers but I can’t read it in quite the same way.
I’m now aware of how working class people were treated. Kurt Vonnegut at least recognises other people and classes and in that way Slaughterhouse 5 is a better book about the Second World War than any British writer has had published. And it’s getting too late for that now, the last of the people who fought in that war are dying out. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with British writers but the way we do publishing here, I think working class writers lose belief in their ability because the guy picking the team is middle-class and he is picking it for a middle-class world.
Is class something you’d like to write in-depth about?
When I sit down to write I write about working class characters. They are the people around me. There’s nothing special in that, it’s most people’s experience. But because of the way writing and publishing are structured that is seen as a class issue whereas all the middle class writers on the Guardian Book Page are not seen as a class issue.
OK. Would you want to write “politically”?
I write about ordinary people and their fantastic lives, that’s what I’m trying to do. Because it’s not standard middle class fare about standard middle class characters it will be seen as political. But by who? The people who make up the Guardian Book Page? I want to write about people’s varied lives, not a silly one dimensional version of the working class.
There was a survey where around 60% of people described themselves as working class. The BBC news item described this as ‘staggering’ and accompanied their news item with a picture of Vickie Pollard. The only staggering thing about this is how detached the BBC is from the working class and their sheer meanness of spirit in the use of Vickie Pollard – who, inevitably, is portrayed by an actor who is the product of public schooling. We’re not even allowed to play the caricatures of ourselves.
What’s wrong with Vickie Pollard
It’s an idea of working-class, manufactured by the middle-class, peddled by middle-class people. She is colourful, she makes them laugh but she’ll never challenge them for their jobs, she’ll never endanger their middle-class lives. Unlike Roger Scatcherd who is a threat. Vickie Pollard is only ever a comic character, it’s all she’s capable of being. She has a limited range of emotions. Middle-class people have a full range of emotions, they’re spiritual. We are getting more and more of this, working-class people depicted as not having access to a range of feelings and abilities. They just drink, fuck, fight and that’s there lives in total.
That image is being reinforced as time goes by. Social mobility is decreasing. Doctors used to marry nurses, managers used to marry secretaries, it’s a cliche, I know, but it did happen, now doctors marry doctors. It’s true, it used to happen!
Well I think it would be interesting for you to explore some of that in greater detail in your writing. But understand that you’re focussed on writing a certain thing at the moment. OK, looking at authors, who do you go back to?
Kurt Vonnegut is a good place to start. I’ve been reading a lot of American pulp fiction, Robert Crais for instance. He’s one of those writers that has a series of novels. It’s interesting how a series of novels often go off the boil. How you fail as a writer. Six or seven: great. And then they fall off a cliff. You must see it in other writers but perhaps you think it will never happen to you. Or perhaps you just get too comfortable. Anyway, one novel I go back to is Voodoo River. I’ve read that several times over the last four or five years.
What sort of writers made you think “Oh, I like books”?
I used to read science fiction novels when I was a very young. Then when I was 11 or 12 I used to read Dylan Thomas. I read The Followers, which has stuck with me, and is a fantastic story. It’s about two guys on the piss, and it follows them around Swansea. It ends up with one of them spying on two girls, some secret thing. The girls he is spying on are also doing something secret which is never spelled out. It has that ordinary and fantastic feel at the same time, which I think a lot of life is about. Despite that the fantastical element is working within bounds, it never gets out of control. It’s never about “I’m gonna kill this guy or this woman,” which made me identify with it; it’s realistic. Even though the narrative could be described as ‘fantastical’.
What about what we do? What has been your favourite Open Pen piece thus far?
Peter Higgins’ piece.
A Brief Guide to London’s Lost Cinemas?
Yeah, I really liked it. I had a few minor problems with the story but that one has stayed with me. Also Red [by Jacqueline Downs] was very good. I felt it was interesting in the same way that The Followers was: Fantastical more so than the Followers but still connected to the real. But London’s Lost Cinemas has been my favourite so far. It had a very strong sense of place, which I’ve already said I enjoy. It wasn’t as fantastical, but it had elements of the fantastic in that it showcased a very ordinary story with a secret cinematic double life. Being fantastical is not to be unrealistic, I should stress that, a lot of people’s lives are mundane and fantastical… mutually. If you don’t show all of it, you won’t portray ‘real’. To leave out one or another reduces them to something less than real, and that’s something I don’t buy.
David is currently looking forward to finishing his novel. To contact David Gill regarding his writing, please submit a request for contact to Open Pen.