Welcome to the five hundred and fifteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction author Richard Armstrong. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Richard. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Richard: I am based in Cambridge and have been writing since the late-1980s. I began contributing short articles and reviews while in London to ‘What’s On’ publications and began work on my first book in 1990. My first published article was a snippet on the Freud Museum for the long-defunct The Good Times in 1990.
Morgen: I know ‘What’s On’ but not heard of ‘The Good Times’, sounds like a fun read. You write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Richard: By the mid-90s, I was writing on the cinema for a number of publications and I suppose one project has led to another. I write mainly on American and European cinema, and a key theme in my writing has been the historical and aesthetic relationships between them. My new book, revolving around the representation of grief and mourning, features case studies of a range of French and American films and liberally draws upon both heritages. The book came about as a PhD thesis which I researched and wrote at Cambridge University. Having reviewed a book by Emma Wilson (daughter of the children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson, and a professor at Cambridge’s Modern & Medieval Languages faculty), she contacted me to thank me for the write-up and I asked her why nobody writes on the topic of that book, the representation of loss in modern cinema. She said: “Exactly, why don’t you write a PhD on it?” The thesis, which I finished in just under 3 years in 2009, passed without corrections and I then approached McFarland, the publisher of my first book who leapt at the project!
Morgen: I love a challenge and have a season ticket for my local cinema which I usually hammer but writing a PhD on the subject takes some doing, although you’re very practiced by the sound of it. What have you had published to-date?
Richard: My first book, on the Austrian-American filmmaker Billy Wilder, was published by McFarland in 2000. My second book was Understanding Realism in 2005, an undergraduate textbook for the British Film Institute. My third, book-sized, work was a substantial contribution to Penguin’s Rough Guide to Film in 2007. I’ve also contributed entries to a range of film guides and encyclopaedias.
Morgen: I guess this won’t apply to the Penguin book but did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Richard: I have played only a very small role in choosing titles and cover images, partly because two of my books were part of a series, but also because I tend to see these as issues of publicity and marketing, rather than writing, so I trust that the publisher has a shrewder idea of what works than I do!
Morgen: You would hope so. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Richard: I am currently co-editing with Dr Anna Elsner of Oxford University an edition of the academic film website Film-Philosophy on mourning in French cinema which is due to appear in September 2013. I am also working on a monograph for Wallflower on the 1943 Hollywood Jane Eyre adaptation I Walked with a Zombie which is due to appear in 2014, I believe.
Morgen: Oh wow, I like the sound of that. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Richard: Yes, I write every day. I don’t suffer from writer’s block in the way it is generally understood, although of course there are times when it doesn’t come as well as it does at other times. That is, I sit down at 9:30 in the morning and…. nothing… so I just stick with it till I have something on the page. Once the juices are flowing, it might come to me more or less fully formed at 3:00 the following morning!
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more, as you say, fully-formed?
Richard: I write something, then rewrite, adding, subtracting, then refine in successive revisits over a period of days. Before I had a computer, I used to draft everything by hand exactly four times over, but now the process is rather more organic.
Morgen: And if your handwriting:typing speeds are like mine, easier with the latter. Do you have to do much research?
Richard: Yes, a lot of my research takes place in libraries and archives, although writing seriously on film means watching films closely and making notes. Researching the new book took me to the cemeteries of Paris!
Morgen: I’m not a fan of research but I’d be more than happy to do that. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Richard: No, I am fortunate in that everything I have written has been published. It all depends on how far what one writes is in response to contemporary debates and the provenance of new books and reissued films.
Morgen: Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Richard: Both. It used to be mainly pitching, but following the publication of Understanding Realism, my editor at British Film Institute Publishing, Andrew Lockett, moved onto Penguin and called me one afternoon to ask if I would like to co-write the Rough Guide, and increasingly people come to me now. I still pitch book reviews, but that’s because I am on a number of publishers’ mailing lists so I get to hear of new books in my field before editors do.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Richard: I used to receive copious rejections. It is a cliché to say that writers could paper their study walls with rejection slips but it’s true!
Morgen: I’m lucky in that respect (it would help to submit more often) I have less than 30 so they’re in a red display book (which will take up to 80 so I do expect to fill it at some stage). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Richard: No, I’ve never had an agent. An agent is just another person you have to pay!
Morgen: They are and I guess it’s quite different for non-fiction and certainly you’re coping well without one. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Richard: Not much over the years, but more nowadays.
Morgen: With social media etc. it’s becoming that way but then we get to speak to our audience directly which is great. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Richard: The most dreadful moment of my life is being confronted with a blank screen before I’ve drafted anything… After all these years, it still kills me!
Morgen: Oh dear but then it’s worth persevering… you can’t edit a blank page. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Richard: Know what it is you have to say. If you have nothing to say, don’t send the message!
Morgen: If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, whom would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Richard: The Austrian film director Fritz Lang, Katherine Mansfield, and the wartime British film critic C.A. Lejeune. I would cook poulet auxerrois with Great Magenta Salad, and wash it down with a late Chablis.
Morgen: I love poulet in any form and the magenta salad sounds interesting. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Richard: “…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, and that governments of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth” Abraham Lincoln
Morgen: Do you write any fiction?
Richard: No, I don’t write fiction, but I have written a number of pieces rehearsing cinema-going or film-watching anecdotes. Not fiction because they are true, but written as stories. Some can be found at the websites Flickhead and StickYourNeckOut.
Morgen: Thank you, I’ll check those out. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Richard: I proofread documents for academics, students and business people. I teach Film Studies at Cambridge, which is tangentially related as I feel that my students often nourish my writing projects.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Richard: I have one of the largest collections of films on DVD and VHS in western Europe.
Morgen: Wow… but then you can buy them as research. Are you on any forums or networking sites?
Richard: I have only recently begun to use networking sites. Indeed, I found your blog on LinkedIn!
Morgen: Ah yes. LinkedIn’s great. I was running low (a week’s worth) on interviewees back in February so I put a shout-out and have been swamped. I’ve just had to delete the thread as I’m now booked nine months’ in advance with another 900 questionnaires yet to come back to me. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Richard: That depends entirely on the writer.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Richard: I have had work published in the American print journals Film Quarterly and Cineaste. Online, I have work at Bright Lights Film Journal, Film-Philosophy, Flickhead, StickYourNeckOut, Senses of Cinema and Screening the Past. I believe there are short bios on those sites. I have just had a feature published in the print journal Bereavement Care.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Richard: On Facebook I have a page promoting Mourning Films. There will also be a book
launch at Cambridge University on 18 October (next Weds) and there is a Facebook
page for that. The Amazon page can be found here.
Morgen: I hope that goes well. Thank you, Richard.
I then invited Richard to include an extract of his writing and the following appeared on the website StickYourNeckOut in 2004:
One evening in autumn 1979 I was in the audience at London’s National Film Theatre watching Since You Went Away, a war weepie starring Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones. I had had a crush on Jennifer Jones since I saw Beat the Devil earlier that year and took an afternoon off work when The Song of Bernadette aired on television. When she is told that her young husband has been killed storming the beach at Salerno, I felt for this beautiful, tough-minded girl on the cusp of womanhood and I began to cry. As the lights came up a lifetime later, I saw that I was not alone. One man blew his nose as he sidled towards the aisle, still transfixed by the screen. A woman dabbed at the tracks of mascara-stained tears. People seemed to be looking down as they headed for the exits, and tended to smile and think of each other as they negotiated the doorways.
The director of Since You Went Away was John Cromwell. I recently had to write an entry on his career for an encyclopedia and, researching his dates, I discovered that he died on 26 September 1979. That was the day we watched Since You Went Away at the National Film Theatre.
I then invited Richard to include a synopsis of his latest book…
Mourning Films: A Critical Study of Loss and Grieving in Cinema (McFarland, 2012) reflects upon the representation of grief and mourning in modern European and American arthouse cinema. It explores the aesthetic strategies and devices through which mourning has been portrayed, seeks historical precedents for the possibility that there may be a genre or type of ‘mourning film’ derived from classical melodrama and horror cinema, and postulates a taxonomy of characteristic devices in the modern cinema of mourning. Springing from the conviction that films have a responsibility to extend our knowledge of ourselves, this book draws not only upon contemporary film-theoretical and film-historical perspectives, but utilizes the findings of contemporary psychiatry and grief counselling.
Richard Armstrong was born in Andover, Hampshire in 1959. His first seminal education experience occurred in the Granada cinema watching James Bond and Beatles films in the 1960s, (a preoccupation with the transition from classical cinema aesthetics to postwar arthouse aesthetics probably dates from this period). After a series of office jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, he studied European literature and philosophy at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, did his MA in Film at the University of East Anglia, and his PhD at Cambridge. He currently teaches and is an Examiner at the Modern and Medieval Languages faculty at Cambridge University. Since 2001 he has been an Associate Tutor affiliated to the British Film Institute. He currently lives in Cambridge with the film writer Irene Dobson.
Update February 2013: RA is joint editor with Dr Anna Magdalena Elsner of a forthcoming issue of Film-Philosophy on the representation of loss in French cinema.
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