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 excite me).
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 piecemeal.
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 writer?
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 answer.
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 with.
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 that character.
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?
RR: Words, 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 level?
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 very honed.
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.