Welcome to the two hundred and twenty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist, playwright, short story author, actor and director Stella Duffy. 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, Stella. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Stella: Youngest of seven children, first in my family to go to university (not through lack of interest or application in my older siblings, the time there was only one left at home, there was more money to keep me at school!), daughter of two self-educated parents, both of whom had had to leave school at 14 in 1935, both of whom were wide and vociferous readers. My family moved to my father’s native New Zealand when I was 5, so I went from a south London council estate to a small timber town in NZ where 70-75% of people were Maori and Polynesian, form a written storytelling culture where my mother could recite great swathes of poetry, to an oral storytelling culture – the best of both worlds. I started out as an actor, also writing for theatre, worked as a standup in the late 1980s, discovered impro when I realised standup wasn’t (at all!) for me, realised improvising was all about storytelling, became a novelist. Not at all that easily, but in that order. Note to would-be writers, being a cleaner as a way to earn money while at university and before the work you love begins to earn for you is VERY useful. No better insight into other people’s lives that to be, literally, airing their dirty washing…
Morgen: 🙂 I have five of your books (admittedly in my ‘to be read’ pile: ‘Singling out the Couples’, ‘Eating Cake’, ‘Immaculate Conceit’, ‘State of Happiness’ and… ooh, another version of ‘Singling out the Couple’, the latter you kindly signed for me at the Oundle Literature Festival’s Readers Day March 2010); all laced with humour yet you previously wrote four crime books, what genre would you say you generally write and is there another genre you’d like to write but haven’t yet?
Stella: In total there’s six literary novels, five crime novels, and (as of this year) two historical fictions, as well as almost fifty short stories and ten or so plays … I only ever write the next thing in my head, the piece that’s begging to be written, so I guess I’ll just have to see what comes up next!
Morgen: Like me, I don’t stick to one genre and I love the variety (which is probably why I’ve just quit the day job to go back to temping… although I hope to write more than ‘proper’ work. :)). Do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
Stella: The latest book is always my favourite, so that means that right now it’s Theodora.
Morgen: Can you remember where you first saw one of your books in a bookshop or being read by a member of the public?
Stella: Can’t remember the first time in a shop, but I do remember the thrill of seeing a member of the public reading a book of mine in the tube. That felt very ‘real’.
Morgen: What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Stella: Serpent’s tail bought Calendar Girl in 1993, published it in 1994, and yes, it was – and is – still a huge delight.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do (or did) you deal with them?
Stella: Yes, of course. From publishers not wanting my book, to being longlisted but not shortlisted, shortlisted but not winning… and I dealt with them the same way everyone does – pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. It’s part of the job, that doesn’t make it any easier, but it is how it is.
Morgen: It is, and should make us stronger for it. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Stella: I do, and yes. I know plenty of people are embracing self-publishing online, but the main model in the UK is still via publishers and therefore an agent is still the way to go.
Morgen: Many (all?) of your books are available as eBooks, were you involved in that process? Do you have any plan to write any eBook-only stories? And do you read eBooks?
Stella: Not all of my books are available as e-books yet, but hopefully they all will be soon. I haven’t yet written any specifically e-book pieces, but I wouldn’t be averse to doing so. And yes, I read e-books, I have a kindle and like it a great deal. I’m not fussed about the book as an artefact, it’s the story that matters to me more, the medium is just that – a medium. (That said, come the apocalypse, we’ll all be searching out ‘proper’ books!)
Morgen: 🙂 Some of your books are also available as audiobooks (my favourite format), were you involved at all?
Stella: I only have one book available as audio book – Theodora, the unabridged reading, which is lovely. And my only involvement was to point out that Theodora would have been highly unlikely to be a redhead – they changed the cover art!
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Stella: I do what my Virago publicist asks me to do. I’m good like that.
Morgen: And I’m sure they’re very grateful. 🙂 You have a Wikipedia page, how accurate is it? 🙂
Stella: Given I have occasionally updated and corrected it, fairly accurate. But I don’t keep regular tabs on it, and I can’t be held responsible for the inaccuracies other people have written about me! There’s one nuance I try to correct whenever I see it – sometimes people write “Stella Duffy was born in England BUT grew up in New Zealand” – I always say I was born in England AND grew up in New Zealand. Both good things, both things I’m grateful for, why the ‘but’?!
Morgen: Absolutely. Everything we do is fiction ‘fodder’. Did you have any say in the title / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Stella: I’ve always titled my own books, there have been some discussions, but there’s never been a title I’ve not been happy with. There have certainly been covers I’ve not liked, thankfully not recently, but you just have to go with that – trusting that the marketing department know better than you do!
Morgen: I guess it’s their job to know their audience (I really like the cover of ‘The Room of Lost Things’). I mentioned the Oundle Literature Festival’s Readers Day and it came a few months after you were involved writing a Mills & Boon novel for their 100th anniversary, how did that come about?
Stella: I didn’t write a Mills and Boon novel, I was asked by BBC4 to present a documentary about Mills and Boon, which – as someone who has never written a romance – seemed like an interesting thing to do. As part of the progamme the producers thoughts it would be interesting for me to try to write a Mills and Boon. I pointed out that if they wanted to make the progamme in 9 days, as they did, then getting me to write 55,000 words in that time was asking a little too much! So I wrote three chapters and a synopsis and interviewed loads of people. There was also a flying (24 hour) visit to a Mills and Boon writing course in Tuscany – I’m sure those that were there for a full week managed to write loads, in 24 hours and with interviews to do, my output was rather less.
Morgen: That’s still very good going. What are you working on at the moment / next? Do you manage to write every day?
Stella: I’m finishing the final edit of the Theodora sequel – The Purple Shroud. I also have a story commission, am writing an introduction to a Virago Modern Classic to be published next year, and I have two ongoing film projects. I also work in theatre as a director and a performer and have a few theatre projects on the go as well.
Morgen: Given how busy you are, this sounds like a redundant question but do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Stella: I never have, so I don’t want to tempt fate here, but I do think that when we get stuck it’s just that – stuck. And there are ways to break through being stuck. Giving it a title like ‘writer’s block’ possibly makes it more hefty than it need be. I also find paying the bills is a marvellous way of getting unstuck… I’m make my living from writing, I’m not sure I could afford to have writers block. But as I say, touch wood…
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Stella: With a short story I wait until I pretty much have the entire idea in my head before starting to write and then I just go for it. With novels, I usually know some main points and use the first draft to fill in the blanks. The historical novels have been a little different in that I have had to know a lot of plot before I start – but I don’t think plot (what happens) is the same as story (what it’s really about), so again, I use the first draft to find that out.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, and what do you think makes them believable?
Stella: No, no method, other than trying very hard to make them believable, rounded, full characters. This often involves re-working them in second, third or more drafts. And never involves one of those character ‘bibles’ I often hear people talking about – if you don’t know the full story how can you possibly know what kind of a person your character needs to be? For me, the story always has primacy, and the character needs to serve that, so making choices about the character before actually writing the story is redundant.
Morgen: And they’ll invariably have their say (I love that). Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Stella: For me, the editing is the writing.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Stella: For the historical fictions yes, for the others, only if the story needs it. But even so, the thing that makes it fly for me is the ‘making stuff up’.
Morgen: Me too, absolutely. 🙂 Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc., do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Stella: I like silence. I love silence, crave silence, get it far too rarely.
Morgen: 🙂 What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Stella: Whichever suits the story.
Morgen: Have you ever tried second person?
Stella: Yes, very useful in crime novels and the occasional short story.
Morgen: Yay! I love second person and don’t often find another writer who does (or who has tried it). What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Stella: I’m not sure anything has surprised me, but the least favourite part is how little of the time can be devoted to writing, and how much of it is taken up with the business of writing – things like this interview (which, though very welcome!!, does, of course, take time), doing one’s own accounts, all the bits and pieces of running a business as a sole trader which is, in effect, what being a writer is. And no holiday pay, no sick pay etc etc. That said, I certainly don’t begrudge or bemoan any of it, I’d just rather people didn’t assume it was all sitting around on the sofa all day having lovely thoughts…
Morgen: I can’t imagine writers these days being able to but we do it because we love it, don’t we. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Stella: Keep going. Edit, re-write, edit is NOT spell-check. Stop talking about it and do the work. Don’t show it to too many people. Keep going.
Morgen: Absolutely. If you want it badly enough, you just will. I interviewed Adrian Magson earlier in the year (for the podcast and later for this blog and he said that line-by-line editing is a necessary evil and I’d think especially so for book form where you can only make changes in a secondary print run (oh, the joy of eBooks). What do you like to read?
Stella: Books (in print or e-form). Years ago I gave up reading magazines except when in waiting rooms, and a few years back I stopped buying Sunday papers – all that extra time to do other stuff, not read articles I felt I ought to! I get plenty of news online, follow links to good articles that people suggest on twitter or Facebook, and otherwise read books.
Morgen: I used to buy a paper every day and watch more TV than I do (very little) and it’s amazing how much time it releases… it’s how I keep this blog ticking over, what with the day job and so on. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Stella: Get on with it!
Morgen: That works for me too. 🙂 What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Stella: I garden, like to cook/bake. I also make theatre – as a director and writer, so that pretty much takes up all my time.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Stella: My favourite writing books are Christopher Vogler’s ‘The Writer’s Journey’, Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, and Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ (for the character chapter specifically, not the structure stuff). I’ve never used any of them as a plan, have turned to these and many others when stuck or lost or uninspired. King’s book especially is brilliant for its honesty and passion.
Stella: I enjoy them both. I’m not sure how valuable they are for book sales, but they’re both invaluable distractions!
Morgen: 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Stella: People aren’t going to stop wanting stories, we – writers, publishers – just need to work out the best way to keep up with what the public want, and how the public want it. (And we also have to make sure we, writers, stay true to the stories we want to tell.)
Morgen: It’s definitely an interesting time at the moment. You have a blog (http://stelladuffy.wordpress.com) is this the best place to find out about you and your writing?
Stella: It is.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Stella: I’ve been practicing Buddhism for 25 years, I find the rhythm and discipline of chanting every day, morning and evening, a huge help to my writing practice.
Morgen: Quite a few of my other interviewees have found solace and meditation a huge help. I should take more ‘time out’. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Stella: What’s the most unexpected answer you’ve ever had to any of these questions?
Morgen: The one that springs to mind, possibly because it’s recent, was from Sheila Quigley, who told me it had taken her 30 years to become a published novelist – that’s some staying power! Thank you Stella. I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you and am so grateful for your time.
Stella Duffy has written seven literary novels including her latest, Theodora, Actress, Empress, Whore. The Room of Lost Things and State of Happiness were both long-listed for the Orange Prize. She has also written the five novels of the Saz Martin crime series; ten plays; and forty-five short stories. She won the 2002 CWA Short Story Dagger and Stonewall Writer of the Year in 2008 (The Room of Lost Things) and 2010 (Theodora). Theodora and its sequel The Purple Shroud have been optioned by HBO. She is currently working on two new feature film projects and adapted her story The River’s Mouth for a short film in 2011. She presented the BBC4 documentary How to Write a Mills and Boon, has reviewed for The Review Show (BBC2), Front Row (BBC Radio4) and written articles for most newspapers in the UK. She is also an actor and theatre director. Photograph of Stella courtesy of photographer Gino Sprio.
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