Welcome to the two hundred and thirtieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist Will le Fleming. 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, Will. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Will: I suppose I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I wrote a lot as a child, and won some hugely exciting prize (I can’t remember it, but think it was made out of wood) for a coming-of-age tale told from the point of view of a trout. In my working life I’ve travelled a lot, and done a lot of jobs, from croupier in New Zealand, to sword-fighter in London, to stringer in South America. All the time I knew that writing was what I wanted to be doing, but I wasn’t always doing it. It comes down to finding a voice and finding stories that you want to tell enough, I think, to make it happen. So now I write and teach literature and very much enjoy doing both things.
Morgen: A trout as a protagonist sounds like a winner to me. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Will: Genre is a tricky business. What I write is called general fiction, which seems to me unhelpful, or literary fiction, which seems to me absurd! I like nearly all books across a range of genres: thrillers and fantastical books and magical realism and 19th century sweeping narratives and the list goes on. Anyway. My genre? Darkly-comic-mysterious-emotionally-resonant-page-turning-off-kilterness. Will that do?
Morgen: As someone who doesn’t stick with one genre either, that’ll do very nicely, thank you. 🙂 What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first book on the shelves?
Will: I have had one novel published, which is called Central Reservation. And in the tumult of launch, I can’t remember when I first saw it on a shelf. I do remember the Back to the Future moment of opening the box of books from the publisher though!
Morgen: 🙂 Have you ever seen a member of the public reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Will: I teach as well as write, and certainly did a double-take the first time a student was carrying it (mostly as an attempt to curry favour and deflect attention away from his total deadline inability, I think, but hey…). Getting tweets from people abroad who seem to have found it online somehow is quite full-on, too.
Morgen: I had a blog contributor bump into a ‘fan’ (her word) of mine at a party recently… I’m still smiling about that. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Will: Plenty, though I should probably do more. I’m published by a new collaborative press called Xelsion, and the idea is to involve the author at every stage. This is great, as you have a voice in traditionally difficult areas to influence, such as jacket design. But it does mean you take on some of the PR burden. I blog, and social mediarise, and talk to bookshops, and arrange as many talks and events as I can. Don’t know if that adds up to a brand, mind!
Morgen: It’s certainly building it and even ‘household’ names these days have to (and hopefully want to) do a chunk of their PR. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Will: Well, there was the mystery wooden prize… apart from that, no major recent competitions. I did take part in the Society of Authors tweetathon to raise awareness of short story cuts on BBC Radio 4, though, and won a line in a short story started by Neil Gaiman and recorded by Hugh Bonneville, which was pretty exciting. You can read about the campaign here (the story I helped to write is the Neil Gaiman daytime one). In general I think competitions are great for bringing people to the attention of an audience who would otherwise have missed them.
Morgen: They are, and it’s recognition by peers which I think these days are especially useful, and winning a mystery wooden prize would be a bonus. 🙂 Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts podcasts have guest speakers (normally actors) reading short stories but had one recently written and read by Neil Gaiman which apparently was a rarity… it was a very good story. You must have been thrilled with the BBC being involved too (and I really like Hugh Bonneville, ever since I saw him in Notting Hill). Do you write under a pseudonym? Do you think they make a difference to an author’s profile?
Will: I don’t, though one day I might, if I wanted to turn my hand to another genre.
Morgen: Or a specific one. 🙂 I think the good thing about starting out writing different things is that readers are going to be used to that and be more open to you as a writer than as a crime writer or historical writer etc. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Will: I did have an agent, but no longer do. It is a very tricky subject. They are certainly vital to publishing as it used to be. As the guardians of a citadel that many would love to enter, they are hard to reach, and hard to reason with. When you do manage to get hold of one, this remains true to an extent. They have a very clear idea of where your book should go, and I think from outside the citadel it is hard to argue against that. However, now that publishing is changing so much, I think their role will change and adapt too, and it remains to be seen if it will be enhanced or diminished.
Morgen: I’m hoping for enhanced and that authors will have more say. Because we have total control when we (self-)publish eBooks perhaps the ‘twain’ will meet. 🙂 Are your books 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?
Will: My book was available as an eBook from the day of publication, and I am very pleased about that! I don’t believe eBooks and paper books are locked into some kind of death struggle. It may be naive optimism on my part but I believe there is room for both in the world. And as for the experience: it was fine, apart from the astonishingly fiddly errors eBook conversion throws up. Checking the text with a toothcomb on my phone was not the most joyous of times!
Morgen: That definitely sounds like a challenge. I agree with you about eBooks vs pBooks (as paperbacks are being referred). I read paper books at home but on the rare occasion I go away, then my eReader save a lot of backache. If any of your books were made into films who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Will: Hm, great question.
Morgen: Thanks, it’s a relatively new one. 🙂
Will: Natalie Portman (playing a 14 year-old so it would be as she was in her Leon days), a young (all right, younger) Ben Whishaw, and Philip Seymour Hoffman should do the trick…
Morgen: Oh of course, I forgot she was the girl alongside Jean Reno – definitely a film in my top 10. I’m going to have to dig it out and watch it again. Did you have any say in the title of your book? How important do you think titles are?
Will: Yes, it was my title, and I think they are really important. The title was originally different. The book then changed, and for a long time I stuck with the original title, even though it no longer really worked. That set up an uneasy tension between title and text that I think can hamper writers – even before you consider the impact a good title can have on readers.
Morgen: I’ve not really thought of it like that. I usually either have a title at the beginning or towards the end. Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?
Will: The book is dedicated to my parents, brother and wife, because I owe everything as a writer to them – so it owes its life to them, too.
Morgen: Now there’s a story. 🙂 Who designed your book’s cover?
Will: Because my publisher is very collaborative, I got to have a lot of input here, and it was great. We worked with a design group called Pentacor, and looking at the mock-ups with the publishers and tweaking here and there and working together to find an image that was true to the book – all of it was fantastic. I’m thrilled with what we have.
Morgen: It’s a very simple but attractive cover. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Will: It is! My first acceptance as a writer was to be offered representation by more than one agent, and that moment definitely stays with me, however the journey ended up – talking to a book professional who is excited about your work is a wonderful, if surreal feeling. Now, working with a new publisher, there are lots of other kinds of acceptance to work towards – acceptance for review, acceptance into large bookshops etc. Each time, again, it is a remarkable thing: each acceptance gives a book, that ethereal thing from your imagination, a more and more solid form, and watching it becoming so real and tangible is a pleasure and an honour.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Will: Oh yes! Some from agents, some from publishers through my agent. His advice at the time was to read them, tut, and burn them. I definitely did that, and definitely didn’t hoard them. Which, had I done it, which I didn’t, would have been weird. Obviously.
Morgen: 🙂 I haven’t had that many (20-something, some for short stories, some for the novels / novellas) but I have them in a red display book and acceptances in a blue one with more spare blue ones than red ones, clearly hoping that the acceptances will be more than rejections. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Will: I’m working on two books. The first one is called Perpetual Motion, which I hope will be published next. It’s an odd story about plumbing and casinos and the meaning of life. Then after that it is The Tide, a story about a woman in a world in which people are living longer and longer, but having fewer and fewer children – all of whom, she believes, have something terribly wrong with them. About death and ageing and mystery, but mostly about an odd kind of hope.
Morgen: They do sound intriguing and I can see why it’s tricky to genre-ise them. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Will: I did, once, write every day; but as a teacher and a father, that has become impossible. The good thing is that I think about writing even when I am not doing it, and that means there is sometimes a lot there, waiting to be written. Maybe more than 5,000 words in one go, depending on how long it has been since the last time! But that is only writing – and writing is really about re-writing… which is where the time comes in.
Morgen: It certainly does, and the thing I battle with. What’s your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Will: Well… I love designing stories. Crafting them. I don’t know every detail but I think about them a lot before I start writing. So I guess, because I have an idea of my characters and my situation in my head, I don’t feel a block at that stage. I think the worst thing is staring at a blank piece of paper and not really knowing what you want to say. Start with design, I think. Start with images and ideas, and only write when the words have been coming for a while.
Morgen: It’s true you can’t edit a blank piece of paper and that’s one thing I don’t have trouble with; even a single word can kick start my writing and a writing exercise two of the writing groups I belong to use. You’ve just mentioned ideas, where do you get your inspiration from?
Will: Images. I know what subjects I want to explore, but I have no idea what my story is. Then I get an image (what, when I teach writing, I call a tense image: a picture full of potential, not moving yet somehow dynamic). And then I think more about the people in the image, and the story starts to come together.
Morgen: The people do make the stories, the plot can be fantastic but if the reader doesn’t warm to the characters, or find them believable, then (in my opinion) they’re less likely to keep reading. So you’re building your story, do you then plot or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Will: No, I plot, but I love being surprised as I go along, too!
Morgen: Oh, me too; it’s my favourite part of writing, that and meeting the characters. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Will: Ah, the people… the central character of my book Central Reservation was originally 42. I knew exactly what she looked like, how she moved… I felt a strong connection to her. But she wasn’t quite alive. Eventually I realised that the most important event in her life had happened when she was 14, and her 14-year-old self was the one I wanted to write about. As soon I made that change, she really came to life. So I think… get to know characters. Try to talk to them. Steer them, sometimes, and sometimes just go with the flow. Probably best to do the talking bit in your head, depending on your neighbours. Names are hard though. Try lots!
Morgen: 🙂 Do you write any non-fiction? If so, how do you decide what to write about?
Will: There is a lot I’d love to write – but it is about time, and knowing what you need to write in the time you have. So at the moment, no.
Morgen: How about poetry? Do you write any? What would you say is the difference between a piece of prose and a prose poem? Why do you think poetry is so popular and yet so poorly paid?
Will: I write poetry in the same way that I sing, badly and in private. I guess the best way to express the difference for me is that it is like sailing. The wind is the meaning you want to express. Poetry sails into the wind, which is when boats go fastest, but the sails need to be pulled really tight – so the language of a poem is taut and tense, and the meaning is more elusive, because you are cutting into the wind – but you really fly, in a poem. Prose, on the other hand, is sailing downwind. The meaning blows through prose, and fills it out – the language is more slack, more open, fuller. As for popularity – is poetry, true flinty poetry, really popular? Has it ever been well paid? Poets used to exist on subscriptions and patronage, I think, more than sales – but the short answer is that I don’t know!
Morgen: That’s OK, it makes two of us. Now to my first love… do you write short stories? What do you see as the differences between them and novels and why do you think they’re so difficult to get published?
Will: I do sometimes try short stories, but they are hard. A novel is a whole world, which you invite people to enter. It is somehow immersive, and you can spend more time creating more of its reality. A short story needs to satisfy just as much, but in such a small space. Short stories remind me of Willy Wonka’s full meal in one piece of chewing gum: no mean feat to pull off. And maybe they are hard to publish because they are hard to sell – much as I love the odd short story, I haven’t bought a collection of them for ages. Since a William Trevor book, a long time ago (a book I cherish, mind).
Morgen: I adore short stories but do find, like a CD, that there are better ones than others (although of course tastes are different; some I’ve disliked others have raved about) which I guess you can get away with more in an anthology than a novel. If a reader isn’t getting on with a story they’ll move on to the next one and perhaps give it another go but they’d be more likely to give up on a novel. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Will: I think all writers are! Whether it is writing chat on Twitter, or reading a book, or watching a film – if you are a story-teller, then a lot that you do connects and relates to story.
Morgen: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to? Are any other members of your family writers?
Will: My wife, by a distance, and it takes a while to go further than that! Her stepmother is a writer, the very brilliant Christie Dickason, and talking about writing with her is always fascinating.
Morgen: I love talking writing (you may have gathered) but talking writing with a writer is always a thrill. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Will: Writing is very definitely re-writing, I think. From friends who have worked in TV, I know that an episode of a weekly serial goes through half a dozen drafts. A novel, that hopefully lives so much longer? Surely it needs at least that much reworking, no? I think most unedited work is either mythical (a lot of writers or their publishers dine out on the ‘written in a week’ story, which gets good press but is later shown by biographers to be nonsense) or, um, not very readable! But there may be good automatic writers out there, for whom I feel only sincere admiration…
Morgen: I only tend to edit mine three or four times regardless of length but then it goes to my editor for her to pull it apart (she does) and I go through it a couple of times more so it sounds about the same as your friends’ scripts but from my little knowledge of scripts I think they do tend to involve more people. It’s quite easy to have never-ending edits but a line has to be drawn eventually. How much research do you have to do for your writing?
Will: I don’t think it is a question of obligation. However much the project demands. Writing needs to be real, to have a true hard edge, to have enough veracity to let people immerse themselves in it and believe in it. Research can give it that, but it is not the only thing that can. So… enough to avoid woolliness, I’d say!
Morgen: Or an ‘expert’ pointing out a flaw. 🙂 Do you receive feedback from your readers? If so anything memorable?
Will: I do, and it is all hugely appreciated. The feedback from Central Reservation that meant the most, in a way, was from people who loved the central character (a 14-year-old girl) and told me they’d found her convincing and real, which was a huge relief given that I am neither 14 nor a girl! And then also it was amazing to hear from people who had known either twinship, or bereavement of the kind in the book (it is about a twin haunted by the ghost of her dead sister), and found those sides to it convincing too. Writing something in which other people find recognition and truth – when it happens, that is a lovely feeling.
Morgen: I wrote a poem once (which won a competition) about a newborn baby dying and a colleague (who was a mother) said she hadn’t known I’d lost a child and how moved she was by it. That I think is ultimately flattery when it’s believed to be true. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Will: Seeing images, letting my mind drift, piecing together fragments of story… to be posh about it, it’s what Keats called negative capability. To be accurate about it, it is staring out of a window!
Morgen: Ah yes, many a happy moment researching that way. 🙂 Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Will: A computer. I think the difference is remarkable: typing, and re-editing typing, changes the way we formulate sentences, and is gradually changing the way we think. I’d love to read a scholarly account of the creative process of a handwriter against a typist – I think it would be very revealing.
Morgen: Apparently the two methods use different parts of the brain and it’s a shame we can’t invent something new twice or else we’d see if there was a difference. I guess freewriting might be a test but I’ve had many interviewees say that their handwriting is writing is so bad that they have to type to be able to read it! Mine’s just much slower because I’ve used a computer for so long. 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?
Will: Not music, definitely: it seeps in all the time and subtly distracts. I go for quiet. Disturbed, I have been told, by a hideous tuneless kind of humming, which I am entirely unaware I am doing…
Morgen: 🙂 What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Will: This is something very dear to my heart. First person can be amazing, but recently it seems to me we drown in first-person narratives. Having a character address a reader, which is fundamental to first-person, can sometimes be limiting, I think. So although I will write in first-person one day, for now it is third. I want, invisibly, to introduce you to Holly Jones (my central character); I don’t want to pretend to be her.
Morgen: But it sounds like you’re doing a good job of it. You can get close in with first person but you can’t get into the heads of anyone else which, as you say, is limiting and third person is really the most popular viewpoint (certainly what agents tell me they’re after).
Will: And second person: hmm. Great in poetry, tiring in prose!
Morgen: It certainly can be. It’s my favourite pov but it is best for short pieces. I’ve taken months reading Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ because I only read a bit and (even I) start glazing over. Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Will: I do like dramatic openings, openings that promise something remarkable, on which the next section delivers – and this does sometimes lead to prologues. And I have a guilty temptation towards the epilogue, but think it is much better to leave characters living in the uncertainty of your readers’ minds, rather than pin down their futures into stale facts…
Morgen: Absolutely. Enough ends need tying up so the reader isn’t left puzzled but their imagination should do some of the work. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Will: Um… poetry definitely! Otherwise I mostly write to be read, so I hope not. Reading for me completes the writing circle, and is fundamental to it; that delayed dialogue is the moment the story comes alive. So I definitely hope that what I write will find a reader.
Morgen: I’ve written over 100 stories over the last five or so years that I’ve done nothing with but I hope they can be edited and submitted / published now I’m more practiced / experienced. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Will: I love the worlds beyond worlds that open up every time you write, and I love living with language, and the moment of tension and release when something imagined slips into the perfect phrase in which to describe it. And least favourite: the times at the beginning or the end of a writing session, when the other world (either of the book, or the real world) seems elusive, and you are lost between different realities.
Morgen: If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Will: The moments when a reader really connects, really feels something you hoped they might feel. As long as it happens, I think it will be surprising. And, um, how difficult widows and orphans are. This is a typesetting issue. Always employ the best typesetter available, is my advice! Craftspeople are always worth it.
Morgen: They are, editors especially. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Will: Success is the ability to keep failing, and failing better, I guess. And get your work read by people who will be honest, then listen to what they say. We all like to think our work is interesting, nay remarkable. But unless you listen properly to what honest people think of it, you can never know how it feels to read it, and how to make it better.
Morgen: Absolutely, we’ll always read our own work as a writer not a reader because we know the meaning behind it. What do you like to read? Do you have any favourite authors?
Will: Everything, and I have far too little time for all of it! Um… Henry James, JL Carr, Kate Atkinson, Meg Rosoff, Audrey Niffenegger, Rupert Thomson, Magnus Mills, and Andrew Miller, off the top of my head.
Morgen: Ah, Kate Atkinson… my favourite next to Roald Dahl. 🙂 If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook?
Will: Three! Hm. Being able to invite more would be easier. ST Coleridge, Margaret More (Thomas More’s daughter) and, um, a Bronte. And Audrey Hepburn, sneaking in. Risotto: there’s never much washing up with a risotto.
Morgen: Definitely make it more, I lovely risottos. 🙂 Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Will: Liminal. Antediluvian. Crapulous. Nebulous. Numinous. Um… I like words a lot! This could go on a while… Languorous. Splenetic. Etc…
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Will: Well, I used to impersonate dead famous people (cf ST Coleridge) for a living, so can do some of those…
Morgen: Oh wow… Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Will: This one!
Morgen: You smooth-talker you (that answer wins every time!).
Will: And Twitter, which, once, you find some writers, is like walking through a brilliant party overhearing interesting conversations.
Morgen: That’s the thing about choosing who to follow (and de-follow) you get everyone (mostly) talking about things that interest you… but so many! I can have Twitter open on my timeline then go and make a cup of tea and come back to hundreds of tweets. There’s no doubt that replying to and retweeting (interesting) tweets helps build a following… something I’ve had little time to do, although it’s one of my New Year’s resolutions. In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Will: The UK. Um… not really? That said, the private jet provided by an enormous US publisher to take me on a nationwide tour over there is being awfully slow in arriving…
Morgen: Sorry Will, I borrowed it, you can have it back now. 🙂 Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Will: I do tweet and facebook, and I do think the ability to hold onto people from whom life would otherwise sweep you away is amazing.
Morgen: Isn’t it great. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Will: Wikipedia, astonishingly! Best place is probably my website, though: http://www.willlefleming.com.
Morgen: Oh, wow. I’d love a Wikipedia page but sadly I can’t do it myself. It would be interesting to see what people have to say about me… oh, but then again… 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Will: A lot of solitary, hopefully rewarding hours; moments of amazing sunlight with lovely readers; and I daresay far too few reviews instructing people to buy your book instead of their groceries this week.
Morgen: If they shop wisely, perhaps both? 🙂 If you could have your life over again, is there anything you’d have done differently (writing-related or otherwise)?
Will: Depends. Would I get hindsight? If so school would be brilliant. Um… Tom Stoppard says something lovely about this in Arcadia. Life is only what we live; there is no such thing as baggage dropped from the great camel train of the centuries. Something like that, anyway. Which I think means no!
Morgen: 🙂 Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Will: No, apart from how lovely it is that you delve into so many writers’ lives in this way…
Morgen: Ah, thanks Will. I hope that people enjoy taking part and reading, but I guess having reached no.230 with another 30+ scheduled, we’re doing something right. 🙂 Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Will: …and how on earth you have the time, drive and determination to do it alongside your own work?
Morgen: My own work? Ah, that’s where I’ve been going wrong. 🙂 Actually I just cram a lot in. It’s been harder recently as I’ve been working full-time rather than part-time but, apart from a few days’ help in the New Year, I’ve left my job so hope to have much more time (alongside temping) but I’ll be more focused, that’s for sure. Thank you so much Will. Do come again. 🙂
I then invited Will to include an extract of his debut novel ‘Central Reservation’…
The Family arrived three days after Yvonne’s death. Holly sat on the stairs to watch them come in. Yvonne sat next to her, but whether or not she was watching, Holly couldn’t say. One of the first things she’d discovered about Yvonne’s ghost was that she was the opposite of the Mona Lisa: no matter where you stood, her eyes didn’t follow you around the room. It was impossible to see her properly even if she was right in front of you, which is how Holly had woken up every day since the crash. First she would become aware of a weight pressing against her chest; then she’d open her eyes, stiff and unmoving in a breathless clutch of wrinkled sheets, her hands by her sides, as if in a vice, staring into the face of her dead sister from inches away. She hadn’t screamed, not even the first time.
Will le Fleming was born in 1976, and raised in a dilapidated West Country farmhouse with a moat and no heating. He has written stories all his life, and worked in several countries around the world. Over the last few years he’s been a stringer in South America, a croupier in New Zealand, and a sword-fighter at the Tower of London.
He presently teaches English literature and lives in London with his wife and young daughter.
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