With Ross Raisin,Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year,Words Unlimited launches a new monthly series of author interviews. Ross talks about completing his award-winning novel, God's Own Country and gives a progress report on his eagerly awaited second book
PJ:God's Own County
has a masterful opening - Sam Marsdyke let's us know that he's an outsider
living amidst menace and neglect but he's knowledgeable about the countryside
and, with animals, he is capable of caring - all of this is contrasted with the
silliness of the 'towns.' How many drafts did that opening chapter go through?
RR: The first chapter
probably took more drafts than any other.This is in part because of the importance of the beginning to any novel
- you really want to get it right - and partly due to process.I finish my first drafts beginning to
end before starting to redraft. So I found (as I have now found with my new
book) that when I re-read the opening, it was quite distanced in style and
information from what I eventually knew by the end of the first draft. It
needed a lot of re-working.As
well, at the very start of writing the book, it was this chapter I played with
before any other, when deciding between writing the narrative in 3rd person or
in 1st.I am now so familiar with
that beginning that I have become completely desensitised to it.Just the thought of it makes me want to
fall asleep (again, part of the process - until not long ago, it did still
PJ: The distinctive
voice of Sam is crucial to the success of the book - can you tell us a bit
about your research into dialect?
RR: I was quite a way
into the story before Sam's voice started to become more idiomatic.As the character became clearer to me
so did the rhythm of his language, and it was that rhythm that quite naturally
led me to start toying with dialect words I already knew.I then read books about local dialect,
and talked to people in the area to develop more of a lexicon.Most of the phrases and sayings in the
book are made up - they just felt to me like things that he might say.
PJ: Also crucial to the
success of the book is the way Sam retains the readers' sympathy - he's as
sinned against as sinning. What research, if any, did you do to understand so
well the mind of a sociopath?
RR: Not that
extensive.I wanted to keep to my
own ideas and motivations rather than making him a symptoms ticklist.Most of the research I did do was to do
with sociopathy and the law - mental illness and liability.
PJ: Sam's knowledge of
place keeps the reader interested and sympathetic towards him. Was your own
desire to write about that region a motivating force with this book?
RR: Probably not at the
beginning, but it became important to me.At first, I was so involved with thinking about character that everything
else was somewhat incidental.I do
think that, as I fleshed him out, he couldn't belong to anywhere else but the place he
does. In a way, his Yorkshireness is an extension of character.To write about the countryside was an
important factor (he is a farmer, so that was always going to be there), partly
because there aren't many good novels set in the countryside.This wasn't something I really thought
very much about at the time, but I do now.
PJ: You started the
book on the MA at Goldsmiths - can you describe your writing life after the MA
- how did you create a working practice than enabled you to finish the book?
RR: By burying myself
into the writing of it.I worked
almost every weekday at it, as I still do, and did my money job in the
evening.I wouldn't like to tell
anybody what they should be doing, because everybody has their own way, and
their own job restrictions, but certainly for me I have to invest heavily in it
rather than doing it
PJ: The voice of Sam is
so strong and having heard you read you clearly enjoy reading to an audience.
Does meeting your readers feed the writing? Or, perhaps sustain you as a
RR: I think it's too
early for me as a writer to know that yet.I enjoy meeting readers, and feel embarrassingly grateful to
them, as most new writers do, but I certainly don't think about them while I'm
writing.As for who I am writing
for - myself, readers, my bank account - God knows...that's way too hard to
PJ: The book was very
well received - short-listed for every prize, some of which you won and then
the came the title Sunday Times Young Writer of The Year 2009. How did that
affect your writing?
RR: I don't think it
has.I understood quite quickly
the silliness of the prize thing, how arbitrary it is, the luck it involves,
its relevance.That said, if I don't
get nominated for any prizes for my next novel I will probably be hell to live
PJ: You are in the
process of finishing the second book - was that harder or easier to write?
RR: It has been harder,
no doubt.Why?Hmm.I like to tell myself that it has nothing to do with the
first book, and have done quite a good job of convincing myself.There are a number of reasons, I
think.For one, this is a harder
book, set in a place I had no previous knowledge of, in a style that is quite
restrictive and hard to manage.I
have a deadline now.And, whatever
the external pressure that comes from being a published writer, there is also
an internal pressure, partly to get it right, but also, and this is quite
significant, a pressure to enjoy it.To be excited and inspired by the work that you are sitting down to each
day.This is probably due to a realisation
that now, however long it lasts, this is your career, this is what you do.
PJ: Can you tell us a
bit about the new book? Does it have a title yet?
RR: No title, or
character names.I am just
beginning my second draft, so I should probably nail these things down,
although I didn't with my first book until after it was finished, so I don't
feel in too much of a rush.The
novel is set in Glasgow, and concerns an ex-shipyard worker whose wife dies
just before the book begins.She
has died of an asbestos related illness that she contracted decades ago while
the husband was working on the yards.The narrative follows this man, and what happens to him as he grieves,
withdrawing from the house, then Glasgow, and eventually becoming homeless. It
doesn't take a lot of brain-searching actually to realise that this is another
reason it has been difficult to write.It's not a cheery thing to sit down to every day for three years.
PJ: Yorkshire dialect
and now Glaswegian - that's quite an exercise in linguistics.
RR: I've always been
interested in linguistics, which I studied a bit as an undergraduate. But I
think it has to do with a kind of genuineness, an honesty of narrative. This
second book is a close third person narrative. It would seem odd, given that
the character speaks in an idiomatic way in the dialogue, not to represent that
in the narrative. It helps also as a yardstick in finding your character.
Because language is so ingrained in character, as you learn more about their
language and the way that character uses language, then you learn more about
PJ: A middle-aged,
homeless Scott - Where did the idea for the second book come from?
RR: Doing some studies into
homelessness and working backwards from there. Wanting to take on the
stereotype of the elderly Scottish homeless person. How had that person become
like that? There is a political interest, also language but it always comes
down to story and character - how did the character get to be like that? And
the other side of that - how then does society deal with him?
PJ: You talk about
first and second drafts - can you say a bit more - do you work through a first
draft with no looking back?
RR: I'm on the second draft
of the new book, just going back to the beginning to start again. I know a lot
more now, it's changed markedly. I'm prising nuggets from the first draft. I've
changed the tense from past to present. In the first third of the first draft
the language wasn't very idiomatic, then it became strongly idiomatic, and
finally the last third of the book settled to a voice that felt comfortable in
between the two. In that first draft I've learned all about the main
character's history, his back-story.
PJ: What is a
satisfactory day's work - do you count words or time?
unfortunately! I try not to but I find it impossible not to think about words
all the time.I aim for 1000 words
for the day...
PJ: you talked earlier
about the importance of enjoying the process - how do you keep up the enjoyment
RR: Part of it is that
excitement of following through an idea you are curious about.
PJ: I suppose you have
the added incentive that you know it will be published. What do you say to
someone who is not writing to fulfil a contract?
RR: I was on my second
draft of God's Own Country before I found an agent. I'd worked for two years
alone. I was just interested in the idea, the story, that was what excited
me.I wanted to complete it. The
idea of completing a big piece of work that might take a few years - that's
exciting in itself.I hardly ever
thought about publishing - it was there but I tried to compartmentalise it.
It's dangerous to bring those thoughts to the writing session. It's hard not
to, but for the most part, I manage keep those thoughts away.
PJ: What are you
reading at the moment?
RR: Just finished Doris
Lessing's The Grass is Singing.An
incredible book.As is Legend of a
Suicide, by David Vann, a new writer from the US who I plug at every
opportunity, because books like this don't come around often enough.
PJ: As a writer, did
you admire in those books, what was nourishing to your own writing?
RR: Economy. Especially
the David Vann. Both those books use language and emotion economically. Both
PJ: What advice would
you give to someone just embarking on a first novel?
RR: Give it the
time.Which is kind of shorthand
for: give it plenty of redrafting.And enjoy it as well.This
is important.You don't just write
it for the sake of it, or because you have randomly committed yourself to the
task, you do it because, for whatever reason it is, you want to write it.
Anyone know a cure for piles? Most writers seem to suffer from them. It's an
No, it's not the sitting all day - I
mean the piles that grow because of your [okay, my] obsessive tendency to
hoard material - cuttings, photographs, notes scribbled in libraries, notebooks
of all shapes and sizes, magazines, stacks of books - all vital research.
These autumn leaves set me thinking about my piles. Stack the leaves in a bin liner for a year or so, and they will rot beautifully. This nourishing leaf mould, when spread on the soil, produces growth spurts all over the garden.
When I'm working on a novel, it's not the papers that rot
down [if only] but the composting goes on somewhere in the unconscious. For me,
having the back up of the original research piled around me seems necessary
until the project is complete. That's when I reach for a bin liner.
Later this month I'm launching two new regular series so why not subscribe now to Words Unlimited and catch them both from the start?
This monthly series starts with, Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, Ross Raisin. He talks about completing his award-winning novel, God's Own Country and gives a progress report on his eagerly awaited second book.
Weekly Writing Workshop
Would you like to start your writing week with a workshop
waiting for you when you switch on your computer?
Later this month I'm launching Words Unlimited's Weekly
Each Monday I'll post a writing prompt - a picture,
potent phrases, or a combination of both - to kick start your writing week.
Suggestions to as to how you might work with these will
appear on a permanent page which you'll be able to access from the post. As the
posts mount up in the archive you might want to work with several images to
create a narrative.
You can start a conversation with other writers by
leaving a comment after the prompt or leave a new prompt in the comment
When Weekly Workshop has been running for six months I'll
review the feedback I'm getting. If there is enough interest, one of my options will be to
invite you to submit, via email, an extract of prose - Maximum of 500 words -
or a poem - Maximum of 40 lines.A
selection of these will be published on Words Unlimited.
Whether you're working alone, with a writing buddy or your
own writing group - why not subscribe to Words Unlimited now and be sure to get
the first prompt? Just click on the subscribe link in the sidebar.
I'm off to Aldeburgh on Wednesday with a small contingent
from the The PRG & Clink Street Group for sea and poetry [and fish & chips].
In between sessions of writing and reading we'll take
blustery walks down to the beach and Maggi Hambling's wonderful Scallop.
Hambling's sculpture, a monument to composer Benjamin Britten, invites us to
pay close attention to the sea - its sounds and its energy.
Britten immersed himself in the sounds of the Aldeburgh
landscape and shaped them into his music. The inscription on the Scallop - I
HEAR THOSE VOICES THAT WILL NOT BE DROWNED - is a quote from Britten's opera,
Hambling describes this twelve-foot high shell as a
"Conversation with the sea."
And, apparently, it can converse in all weathers, having
been built to withstand winds of up to 100 mph. Hambling also walks the
Aldeburgh beach every day as part of her process in creating her North Sea
As well as having conversations with the waves, we'll be
listening to many voices as from 6 to 8 November the 21st Aldeburgh Poetry
Festival gets underway.
Poetry, like music, is to be listened to and read aloud.
There's a varied selection of voices from Britain, Europe and Americaon the