Welcome to the four hundred and forty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist and short story author Guy Mankowski. 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, Guy. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Guy: I live in Newcastle, England. I started writing very young. Instead of all the normal things children do I would draw and write, but I never showed the writing to anyone. I pursued other avenues professionally for years but also kept on with something creative, which felt the most important. For years it was music but then one day in my early twenties I had an idea for a story that was inspired by a patient in a hospital I worked in. It was published and from then on writing started for me.
Morgen: I dabbled with limericks in my twenties but then life took over and only came back to writing in my late thirties but I’ve been catching up ever since. What have you had published to-date?
Guy: About ten short stories, two novellas, some short journalism and a novel.
Morgen: Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Guy: Great question.
Morgen: Thank you.
Guy: The Intimates was discussed in a book group a few months ago and this question caused quite a debate. I do have favourites; they tend to be the characters that represent developments of people I’ve known or met in some capacity, and my imagination was attempting to try and complete them in my head. Without wanting to incriminate people, Carina from The Intimates seems the best example and probably my favourite. She was inspired by an Italian woman I met at a dinner party who divulged very little about herself, which gave me the room to project many different elements onto her – even though she is the focus of the book in many ways she still remains a mystery to me. A lot of the female characters in that book are inspired by the type of actresses used in Anthony Minghella’s films… I can’t describe how important his work has been to me; the Juliette Binoches and Kristen Scott Thomases. Ideally I would have someone in that vein act the parts because to me they are evocative enough to be more than characters. They seem like signposts to the kind of world I would like to live in, and embedded in them are clues as to the kind of people that most interest me.
Morgen: Both great choices, and great roles in The English Patient. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Guy: I’ve just finished my second novel ‘Letters from Yelena’. It’s about a talented-but-troubled ballerina, who after a difficult childhood is only ever able to open up thorough the letters she sends to a writer. I was lucky to be awarded a grant by the Arts Council to go to St Petersburg to research it at the famous ballet schools there. The book is published by Legend Press on 1st October, although it can be pre-ordered as an e-book from 1st September, and the launch party for it is taking place at Dance City in Newcastle. The launch is combined with a performance of a scene from the novel directed by a renowned choreographer called Dora Frankel, so I’m excited about that. I’ve started writing a Christmas musical with a musician called Richard Walters, who worked with Bernard Butler from Suede and whose solo work I really admire. I’m also working with a guy called Gregory Fox on a comedy about a fictional reclusive Northern rock star, in the vein of Mark E. Smith. And I’ve started writing my third novel, as part of a Creative Writing PhD, which is called ‘How I Left The National Grid.’
Morgen: Great subjects… I’m guessing the answer to this is “no” given the variety you write, but do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Guy: No, I never suffer from writers block. Perhaps insufferably, I have the view that even a lifetime of writing could only chip at what I wanted to articulate, though that’s not to say that I value everything I write. I would say ninety per cent of it isn’t fit for human eyes but I hope it develops me in some way – with characterisation, or atmosphere. Dialogue has been one huge area I want to get better at so I’ve been focusing on that.
Morgen: Dialogue can be tricky to sound realistic but losing the ums and ers. One of my writing colleagues joined our group to learn and improve dialogue so we practice it when we can. I love writing dialogue and every Wednesday’s 5pm fiction piece is dialogue only. Do you manage to write every day?
Guy: I do write, in some way, every day. It always feels like I’m doing it for the first time though. It seems as shocking and pointless and important and repugnant than it ever was.
Morgen: Oh dear. A poet in one of my other writing groups says she finds the writing process tortuous but generally loves what comes out. I love both aspects. You mentioned a few of your characters earlier, do you have a method for creating them, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Guy: No. I’m not sure I even have an interest in them being believable – perhaps I should! I always feel it is most important that the characters are useful in some way, even if they merely represent something to the reader, or provoke something. I suppose the protagonist in my second book, Yelena, had to be believable because I map out her fears and desires as accurately as I can, and I did that by working into the narrative areas where she would have room to reflect and recover from the bad things that happened to her. The names – that’s always been tricky! I used to search on Google for ‘Top 100 Boys names, Top 100 Girls Names’ and find ones that fitted. Sometimes I would do that at work and I always feared my boss would find out and ask me if I was expecting a child. The problem with that approach is I ended up using names I liked rather than names characters might conceivably have. There’s only so many characters you can have called ‘Letitia’ or ‘Violetta’ without it turning into the plot from an Enya video.
Morgen: <laughs> I’m the same with Elliot; it’s stuck in my brain and I either want to call all my characters Elliot or at least have it as a surname. I usually resist but every now and then one sneaks in. Do you have to do much research?
Guy: Increasingly, yes. For Letters From Yelena there was such a huge amount to do. Had I known what I was embarking on I think I’d have felt a bit overwhelmed. Getting permission to get into some of the ballet academies took so much perseverance. Calling in favours, getting people to write letters for me in Russian, convincing choreographers and ballerina’s to meet with me. It took a lot of luck too – some strange fortuitous events happened that made the book possible and without them I would have just been stabbing in the dark. Some of the Russian ballet academies hadn’t let anyone from the West in before and in one I was the first to be on the grounds since before The Cold War. I think having the Polish surname helped. Had I been called Hank Marvin I think I’d have struggled to get in.
Morgen: Oh I don’t know… The Shadows have probably played there… or I’m sure his association with Cliff Richard would have done the trick. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Guy: Yes lots, and rightly so I think. Just unreadable stuff. Last year after The Intimates I wrote a novel about grief which meant a lot to me but which I don’t think I can reasonably foist onto anyone.
Morgen: A lot of my work is dark, and some autobiographical (whether readers pick up on that, I don’t know) but I think there’s someone out there for everything… as long as it’s well-written. I wrote a very therapeutic novel for NaNoWriMo 2010 that I thought would never see light of day but I’m seriously thinking of releasing it, although I’d have to change one of the names… which would be a shame as it works really well. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Guy: The seclusion, which can border on isolation. I was surprised how interested people were in my work. I very much like the sense of solidarity that exists between writers because we are all so familiar with how alone you can feel.
Morgen: Me too. I compare us to learner drivers; we all know how hard it is to pass. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Guy: I tend to scrawl out a few page plans and then lift a few lines from it as my brief for that day.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Guy: Get to the bottom of exactly what it is you want to say and focus only on how to say that. Everything else is a distraction. You can be the queen of the writing group and getting a big round of applause every week but if you don’t address your own central concerns I suspect you’ll end up frustrated. Our inner worlds are so complex I think you’re only ever chipping away at it at the best of times so I’d say focus on that.
Morgen: Wow. Thank you for that. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Guy: This is a question which just makes me want to avoid sounding like David Brent. I’d say Peter Cook, Richey Edwards and a Swedish singer called Sarah Assbring, whose work has really inspired me. I would cook this salmon dish which I wheel out on occasion, though it still needs tightening. Peter Cook could offer scathing witticisms on the quality of my rice.
Morgen: David Brent (from The Office) is really popular. I had to Wikipedia Richey Edwards which makes really interesting (but sad) reading. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Guy: I’m grateful for you taking the time to ask me questions.
Morgen: You’re very welcome. I’m grateful for your answering them. Thank you, Guy.
Guy Mankowski was born in 1983 and raised on the Isle of Wight, before being taught by monks at Ampleforth College, York. After graduating with a Masters from Newcastle University and a Psychology degree from Durham, Guy formed a Dickensian pop band called Alba Nova, releasing an EP on Comfort Records. After that he started working as a psychologist at The Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London, writing during any free moment he could get.
His debut novel, The Intimates, was published by Legend Press on 25th March 2011. It was chosen as a ‘Must Read’ title by New Writing North’s Read Regional campaign, nominated for the Waverton Good Read Prize and called in for the Dylan Thomas Prize. His second novel ‘Letters from Yelena’ is due to be published by Legend Press in October 2012, although it can be pre-ordered as an e-book from 1st September. The opening chapters of this won an Arts Council Research and Development Grant in September 2011.
His website is http://guymankowski.blogspot.co.uk, he can be followed on Twitter @Gmankow and his books can be found on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Guy-Mankowski/e/B004D34GIC.
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