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THE CHAIN

 

The Chain is a series of one-to-one conversations between authors discussing the business of writing. This issue we join Maeve Binchy and Kate Mosse as they discuss everything from their attachment to characters to their own insecurities…

Hello Maeve Binchy, Kate Mosse calling from wet and windy Sussex.

 

What leaps out at me – and i say this with huge admiration – is how very, very hard working you are. Since Light a Penny Candle, another fifteen novels, not to mention short story collections, novellas, a play, collaborations with other writers. This is the reality of being a professional writer, yes? Some of your stories are self-contained, others – Heart and Soul springs to mind – revolve around a cast of interrelated characters. So my first question is this: When a character first appears, do you immediately know whether or not he or she might be ‘a keeper’, someone who will reappear in subsequent novels or stories? Or does it depend on whether, while you’re writing, you enjoy their company enough to bring them back or not? This is, I suppose, simply a long-winded way of asking how much planning, ahead of writing, you do!

 

With all best wishes

Kate

 

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I used to LOATHE them when they said that their characters were like real people to them.

Hi Kate

Delighted to meet you.

 

When I was a journalist and interviewed writers I used to LOATHE them when they said that their characters were like real people to them. I used to think, ‘Pass me the sick bag’. But amazingly as the years went on when I did write fiction I found myself becoming fond of my own creations. Like Signora in Evening Class, she was much too tough and feisty to leave her there, so I went back and found her a new story in Heart and Soul. And the twins Simon and Maud, I was very fond of them as they developed and so I gave them many roles. Fiona the nice trusting girl involved with the faithless drug dealer, she deserved a better life so I gave her one in another book. They do take over. All those authors long ago were right.

 

What I always wanted to ask you was, did your background in publishing help or hinder you when you started writing fi ction. As a publisher you knew already a lot of the pitfalls, you knew the ground rules about what sold and what didn’t. But it’s always easier to advise than to do. Did you still have that sense of judgement about your own work or was it completely different? Did you let your writing run away with you?

 

Look forward to hearing from you

Maeve

 

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Kate Mosse

 

Kate Mosse

© Pascal Saez/Writer Pictures

Maeve Binchy

 

Maeve Binchy

© Liam White

 

 

 the winter ghostsminding Frabkie

 

Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy is published in paperback on 9 June by Orion, price £7.99.

 

 

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse is published in paperback 28 October 2010  by Orion, price £7.99.


Hello again.

 

I, too, used to wince at novelists being highfalutin about ‘loving’ their characters, their characters ‘taking on a life of their own’, all that ghastly stuff. But as soon as I started to write, rather than only interview and read, like you I discovered it was simply what happened. Characters refuse to stay fixed on the page, they take over. And occasionally, I’ve found a character wants to amble in from one book to another and they do, yes, feel like old friends. Aagh!

 

Did being a publisher help or hinder? Well, in time-honoured tradition, a bit of both. It helped enormously with the editing process, for example. Back in the old days, it was a matter of old-fashioned cutting and pasting. Editing a book was a matter literally of snipping a paragraph from one sheet of A4 and sticking it elsewhere, like a gigantic jigsaw. Copydex, the kitchen floor, scissors and thick felt tip pens, the Blue Peter school of publishing.

 

It taught me a lot. Twenty years later when I came to edit my own work (and of course it’s computers and e-editing), I discovered I could solve problems in structure and balance for myself. The principles I’d learnt back in the ’80s were invaluable, especially since both Labyrinth and Sepulchre jump backwards and forwards in time and are complicated. Because I’d cut my teeth on other people’s typescripts, it was less daunting than it might have been. None of this made any difference to quality, but it made a difference to process and, therefore, to my confi dence about being able to pull things off.

 

However… a big drawback was that I knew just a little bit too much. Having been a publisher, understanding the business and 25 years of the Orange Prize too, I knew what was a good subscription and what disappointing, I knew which review coverage might harm or help, I knew what it meant if Tesco said ‘no thanks’ (as they did for the hardback of Labyrinth). I fear I was too much an ex-publisher and too little an author… sometimes, I suspect, a bit of a pain.

 

As for judging my own work, the simple truth is I have no perspective. None at all. Like any author, I lurch between thinking my work is all right – that’s to say, I haven’t let myself down – and thinking it’s dreadful, embarrassing. When I deliver a new novel to my agent and editor, I go into a spiral of drinking wine and pacing nervously around the house, fl inching every time the phone rings.So, a treat to be able to ask you – after your years of wonderful and continuing success, whopping sales, novels loved – does it get easier? Can you judge your own work, what works, what doesn’t? Do you feel the pressures of writing versus the pressures of publishing, or don’t you let it bother you? Does it infl uence which stories you tell or can you keep the creative and business side separate? For example, I know you’re writing a Quick Read at the moment. Does this feel harder, easier, the same as usual?

 

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Dear Kate

 

When I got your letter saying that you lurch between thinking your own work is quite good or simply dreadful...I couldn’t believe it. This is EXACTLY how I feel about mine.

 

When I was writing Minding Frankie, I used to come upstairs to the big bright airy study I share with Gordon Snell, my husband who is a writer of children’s books. Before I would begin the day’s work I would read what I had written yesterday. Any sense of judgement that I ever had fl ew out the window. Some mornings I thought that what I had written was terrific and that Chekhov and Dickens were only trotting after me. Other days I would think that what I was reading was the rambling tale of a madwoman and that possibly everyone knew this and they were being kind to me.

 

Imagine that you feel like that too! I thought that because you write such fl awlessly researched and accurate books you would KNOW you had the measure of it all and be totally confident.

 

And that bit about waiting for the first reaction from the publishers. Oh I am with you all the way. I have had totally paranoid fantasies that they are all sitting around a table each asking the other to be the one to tell me the story was hopeless. I was once reduced to going out and having my ears pierced because I so needed to concentrate on something more painful and frightening than just sitting and waiting.

 

They never put any pressure on me in the publishers. That is a huge relief. Whenever I tell them the topic and give a one-page outline they say it sounds marvellous, and beam at each other. They can’t seriously mean it all the time, but it’s wonderful. They remind me of a gym mistress we had years ago who gave great praise to the unfi  and hopeless. ‘Well done dear, at least you didn’t actually break the vaulting horse this time,’ she would cry and whoever it was would feel proud and happy and consider gymnastics for the next Olympics…

 

I once secretly asked someone in the Sales Department of the Publishers what exactly people out there wanted from me. ‘Something the same but just a bit different,’ she said. It doesn’t SOUND very helpful but in fact it was. Readers liked to know what they could expect. In my case no make-over novels, the heroine does not become thin or rich or married, she fi nds something much more valuable and wise. She learns how to take control of her own life.

 

I enjoy doing the Quick Read because they are a challenge. Only 20,000 words instead of maybe 100,000. It’s hard getting to know the people really quickly so that the reader will care about what happens to them. I keep reminding myself each day, ‘You don’t have all day and all night Maeve, get to the point’. 

 

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