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Interview with novelist Tiffany Murray

What could be a more ideal opportunity to interview a writer you admire than during a Hive week away at the amazing Arvon Lumb Bank Writing Centre, when said writer is one of your tutors for the week? I was lucky enough to do just that with the wonderful novelist, Tiffany Murray. Interview: Georgie Woodhead, 14

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer from a young age? And if not what was your dream before being a writer?
I only came to writing in my mid 20’s. I was in New York doing a PHD in Comparative Literature so it was all very academic and I started writing about home.  But actually, if I look back, the thing I remember most about primary school – every afternoon we wrote stories in little books and we could draw things and I’ve still got those books and they’re absolutely mad. They’re about witches in trees and flying dogs. I always remember this one story that was put on the school radio, which I’m sure didn’t get far, but it was about this band called The Dirty Donkeys that were basically a bunch of donkeys who created this rock band, and all these things happened and I just loved it. So it must have always been there I think. For a while I trained to be an actress so maybe that took care of my creativity for a while. I started my first novel when I was in New York.

Before you started taking writing seriously, what did you think you would end up doing and how did that pan out?
I thought I was going to be an actor. I did English and Drama at University. I spent about three years in London, after graduating, being an actress. And of course it was great but I knew really that my heart wasn’t in it. Well, my heart was in it, but I think my success was not, and I think that the low point for me was, I was working in my eyes as a tour guide at a place called the Museum of Moving Image on the South Bank, which I think is still there, where basically you had to dress up like a 1930’s usher in a cinema, or a Victorian woman giving a lantern display. I just thought we were tour guides, so would come into the place in the morning to change into a costume, and other people there who were probably about thirty years older than me would say ‘we’re getting into character’. And I just thought: ‘I don’t want to do this when I’m 50. Basically, I think it was me being not dedicated to that craft, and maybe if I had kept at it, it would have been okay. But I went to America instead, which was considerably a very lucky thing.

Did you, or do you, share your ideas for books with friends and family, or do you find writing as very private?
Very private. My friends and family only read either the final draft or literally the copy edit, which is the draft that comes back from the publishers. It’s already been through copy editing with a copy editor after the main editor, so it’s really late. I find that if I talk things through too much that I kill them. You don’t quite know what it is yet, so you’ve got to keep it special and safe I think.

Also, I think you can worried, if you speak your ideas out then you’re always going to think they sound stupid. I find that if you keep them in your head, then they tend to grow more.
Yes. Definitely. Because you’re nurturing them, and there’s nothing worse than saying something and someone else says, ‘Well, I mean, I’m sure I’d do it a different way, surely your character should do this…’

Do you find it easy to plan out your work, or do you start with an idea and see where it goes?
No, I don’t plan. At all.

You are the first writer who has ever actually said that to me!
Yeah, but I think the other ones might be lying. But, maybe they’re not, maybe they’re just very good planners. But no, I don’t plan at all. Just character and place. That’s all you need, I think.

Have you ever lost faith in your writing, and if so, how did you get yourself back on track?
Constantly. And I think a lot of people get that. I mean, that’s just the nature of writing, because it takes so long, it’s hard to be in love with something that’s not created yet, but takes so long to be created. The way to get out of it, I find, is to travel. I know maybe that’s a little bit like tourist fiction, but, for instance I’m going on a residency in Iceland this summer for a month and I applied for it because I know that my next book is set in Iceland so I thought, well, I’m very lucky that I got it and it may sound glamorous and lovely but it’s also about living on your own for four weeks in the middle of blinking nowhere with nothing around you. You have to suffer a bit to get through it, but I think that’s the thing that brings you back, when you’re just alone with it, basically. You don’t have your lovely dog to hug or your husband to cook you dinner. So it’s nice to just take yourself off and say, no, it’s just between me and the page. It’s a very privileged position as well, I have to underline that.

So would you say that just sitting at the same desk every day and writing with the same surroundings would be a way to kill an idea?
No. Because that is something that I think you have to do, whereas I’m talking from a place where I’m about to embark on my fifth novel. I have three published, and the first that I ever wrote, still in the draw, and will always stay in the draw, I hope. And so I need to find devices at this stage, to get myself enthusiastic again. Maybe other writers don’t need that, but I definitely do, I think. So that’s what I’m doing. Because also you find when you write a novel, you stop living. And I was doing that for so many years that now I want to start living and writing. It would be a nice combination.

Is there anything you can tell me about the novel in the draw?
Oh God. Yes. It’s the ‘a typical first novel’, in that it is not my voice at all, or what I’ve come to see as my voice. It’s terribly serious and about terrible things that happen to terrible people. There are bits of it that I love, still. It’s called Fancy Dancing with Elvis. So there’s a bit about people who are obsessed with Elvis Presley as well. It got that, what I thought my voice should be, out of my system. My second novel, which became my first published novel, Happy Accidents, also has a lot of serious things that are happening in it, but it’s in an approachable way, and funny and a little bit weird rather than really serious all the time.

So it was like a training novel?
Yes. Exactly. And I think some authors don’t admit to it, that they have the silent puppet that says ‘I don’t want to go back in the box!’, but I think most of us do, we do. Some authors are very lucky, in that they can resurrect it later on in their career and do something with it, but I know I would never. It will always be the novel in the draw.

Do you find that you take the editing process in your stride, and how do you feel about getting rid of, occasionally, some of your favourite phrases?
The most important thing is to really try and be brave. You’ve got to get rid of those favourite clusters of phrases, and things that just don’t serve the narrative. My thing is always, ‘if it wasn’t there would I miss it?’ Which I don’t always do, I mean there are a lot of bits in my novels that, if they weren’t there, the narrative would still make sense, but you’ve still got to have your voice. I think you’ve got to be ruthless, but not too ruthless. You can’t ruin it. There’s that ghastly phrase ‘kill your darlings’, but I think you’ve still got to let your darlings be your darlings and let them play, because otherwise, you know, there’s nothing there that says it’s yours. I think that as soon as you’re reading something that’s sort of boring you a little bit, then just get rid of it, or something that’s repetitive, it’s just all those normal things. And certainly, if you have an editor who edits ruthlessly and you don’t agree with it, then stand your ground. You have to. But also at the same time, if you really respect them as an editor, absolutely listen to them. It’s a tight rope thing.

I think you’ve already sort of touched on this. How do you feel about letting other people take control of your work?
I think if they’re professionals, great. Literally you’re desperate for it by the time you have drafted and edited your own work. If somebody is a professional, then you just love it. And if they’re your editor, then it’s marvellous. So, my agent will read it over and then my editor will, and any feedback I get, because I’ve been with them for such a long time – brilliant. My husband – he’s a great copy editor, so he reads it in the last stages as well. He’ll say, ‘Well why is she wearing a pink cardigan here when then she has on a bikini?’ Obviously I’m exaggerating, but he’s basically the continuity person, which is important, it really is, and editors and copy editors don’t always pick up on those things. In general, you’ve got to beware of people giving their opinion on your work too soon. And I think reading groups are fantastic, but again, you’ve got to be wary and you can’t take everybody’s opinion on. If you look at those various Amazon-type reviews, some people will just absolutely hate a book, and the next person will love it. That’s just human nature. So that’s why when you’re at that sort of stage of it nearly being a thing you can’t take all that on. And once it’s published it’s not yours, it’s somebody else’s, so they can think what they like about it.

I know that your second book ‘Diamond Star Halo’ is really closely linked to your childhood and musical background. Do you prefer your writing to be very close to your experiences, or do you prefer doing something very far away from what you know?
Well, I don’t know yet. That’s the short answer to that one. Because, with my four novels, I have these four stories that I suppose just happened to be in the area that I grew up in. I love reading writers who play on the same notes, my background is in, you know, Caribbean literature so I like reading writers who come from a certain island and they write about that and they go back to it, or American writers like Sherman Alexi, Tony Morrison, and they kind of riff on the same thing, and I love that. And I don’t see anything unglamorous or any problem with riffing on the Welsh border, in my example. So that’s what I’ve done with all of my four books. But now, I’d quite like a departure, so that’s what I’m going to find out in Iceland this summer. Maybe while I’m there and I’ll start writing about Wales.

Do you see writing as more of a hobby got big or a job?
It’s never been a hobby, as in, for me it’s never been something that I’m just tinkering with. It’s always been, well not always, but when I came to it and I started writing, in my late twenty’s, just a part of who I am now. Absolutely, I lose faith. Completely. Because novels take so long, and it’s such a huge commitment every time, and everything’s so tenuous, and agents, editors and all the business side of this is such a nightmare. Not editors and agents – they’re lovely. But you know, you can’t survive on what you make as a writer, really. So sometimes, yes, it’s very hard to balance writing with making a living. So that’s why it’s lovely to do weeks at Arvon, because you are here as a writer, and you’re with other writers, and you’re talking about writing, and you’re reading other work that inspires you, so it’s great.         

The books I’ve read of yours are incredibly musical. Has your musical background influenced you style of writing?
It definitely has. I wasn’t really aware of it until I started hanging out with poets at Arvon, who always used to say, ‘your prose is really poetic’ or ‘rhythmical’ or whatever. But I suppose I knew it anyway because the way that I edit is reading out loud, and if it doesn’t sound right, if it doesn’t have a certain rhythm to it, then it has to  be changed. So it’s all to do with the way it sounds.

My father was a musician and he tried to teach me the guitar, and I couldn’t have been less interested. So I don’t know how to play any musical instruments, and yet I’ve just always been surrounded by music so maybe that was just kind of ingrained in me. And as a reader, when I read books that could have amazing plots and all these amazing things are happening and fantastic characters, but if they sound dull, I just can’t even bring myself to read them.

You said, strong characters are the basis to any story. Do you find that when you come up with these characters, they based primarily on people you know or come across, or are they entirely new people within themselves?
I think they’re entirely new people in themselves, but to me they certainly don’t come fully formed. So they start off, never as an amalgamation or based on people I know, but they might be. In Diamond Star Halo, the character Jenny in the book is referred to as a sort of young Sissy Spacek. I thought of her as a red-headed like in those adverts you got a lot in the early 80’s with Laura Ashley – so this beautiful, skinny little freckly girl with long, red hair, but she doesn’t know she’s beautiful, and she’s a bit gawky and geeky, and her arms are too long. So that’s who I imagined, but then of course, she becomes something completely different. And you never really know, well I don’t anyway, what my characters really look like – I just have an impression of them. And maybe that’s a good thing maybe it’s not. I prefer reading books that leave it up to the reader.  I mean you think about a book like Jane Eyre where you just know that Jane is plain and small, and that’s enough.

Do you have a process for creating characters or is it just that you come up with a loose form and then you tweak it and change it until it works?
I think it’s a process of growing, most of all, like a sea monkey in water, and it is a case of drafting as well. You add more things to it and it becomes more sensual as it goes on. You begin to understand how they see and interpret the world. For me, anyway.

Would you say that it’s good to start with short stories and then work onto novels?
I can only speak from experience, and so for me, certainly, because I didn’t know how to sustain any kind of story when I started, or how to express any sort of moment of life. So it’s far more manageable to try and deal with a short story, even though short stories, really good short stories, look at any master like Alice Monroe, they are the harder art form. But if you’re starting, then it’s good to start with something finite, that you can try and manage. And then it’s easier to put them in places so you can say ‘Oh look, I’ve done that’ and ‘I got second prize in blah.’ Whereas with a novel you’re committing God knows how many years of your life to something that you don’t know what it is yet.

You also need to practice how to end things, because otherwise, you never do it.
Absolutely. And also it’s that gut feeling, that if you practice and practice, and it’s about having a structure, that you can work in, that can discipline you, that can challenge you.

What’s the best piece of writing advice that stayed with you up to now?
Read. It’s such an obvious thing to say. And sometimes, I think, when you’re writing all the time, you sort of forget to read, so you’ve got to make time for it. Sometimes you think ‘Oh I don’t have time for that,’ but you’ve got to.

Do you think it’s more important to read the classics, or more contemporary stuff?
Well, I think in an ideal world a few classics and a few contemporaries, but for me, I don’t think I’d be a writer without an early teen background in Victorian literature. Because that’s the era of the novel you know. And also they’re fantastic. And I think people who dismiss nineteenth century British literature are silly. What I’m guilty of being though, is a dreadful, dreadful nostalgic re-reader.  I will prefer to re-read a book, than read a new one, so that’s something that I need to stop. There are so many books to read.

Any more advice for young writers in general?
Believe that only you can write what you’re writing in the moment now. You have your own personal writing DNA, nobody else can write like you. You have an individual voice, and you own it. So try and get over that barrier of ‘Oh, it’s not very good’ or ‘Oh no, it’s not like this.’ Of course it’s not like this, because it’s like you. It’s like your voice, and that is something you have over me, over everybody else, that fresh, new voice. And that’s a glorious thing. So embrace how powerful that is, I think. I mean this week at Arvon has been fantastic, and you are all amazing writers, so in order, I think, for you to go on and jump over those hurdles that are there that you could just kick down so easily, just get over the feeling insecure. I know it’s such an easy thing for me to say, really, and so hard to do, but, you know, believe in your own writing DNA. Definitely.

Thank you so much for sharing your writing and advice!