Gosh! An interview with me and a review of A Dangerous Man (http://www.flamebooks.com) came out today on http://www.hagsharlotsheroines.com (many thanks, Laura – I really appreciate it!) and can be found on there – actually, it's a great site anyway, with lots of reviews, features, stories, competitions etc, and it's free to join. So go on – do it now! You know you want to …
Otherwise, (if you're an unreconstructed man – and, if you are, reconstruct yourself, now! We're in the 21st century, you know …) the interview is here, and will amuse some and terrify others:
Features - Man to Man – Laura Wilkinson of HagsHarlotsHeroines in conversation with author Anne Brooke
Anne Brooke has written five novels and numerous short stories and poems – one of her shorts, A Little Death, is published on http://www.hagsharlotsheroines.com. She was short-listed for the Harry Bowling Novel award in 2006, the Royal Literary Fund Awards in 2004 and the Asham Award for Women Writers in 2003. Her latest novel, A Dangerous Man, is reviewed elsewhere on site and has received widespread critical acclaim.
Hello Anne. I'd like to start by talking about A Dangerous Man. It's a fascinating read and despite having finished it well over four weeks ago I am still haunted by it, in particular the central character, artist Michael Jones. It has been described as a gay thriller. As a married woman living in leafy Surrey where did you find the inspiration to write about a gay, tortured artist from inner London?
Michael has, I think, always been somewhere in my head, and for a long time. I see him as an essential part of myself, or as a way of expressing ideas and feelings that are probably impossible to express in my "real" life. The original inspiration came when I was in Florence in 2001. I found the city very inspiring – art, sex and death were everywhere, so much so that they took you over, and I first began writing Michael then. I wanted to set the story in London – I lived there in my early and mid twenties, and found the city very dark and sometimes frightening. That stayed with me and has been a source of inspiration for other novels I've written too.
Would I be correct in thinking that you don't hold much store by the maxim 'Write about what you know' then?
Absolutely! I hate the phrase "Write what you know"! With a vengeance. I would always kick it into touch and say the much more important "Write what you WANT to know". It's far more exciting. And leads you into far deeper places.
You write very well 'as a man' – did this come easily to you? Many (great) male authors are notoriously bad at writing believable, three dimensional female characters – why do you think female writers, on the whole, write better men than male writers do women? If you agree of course!
Yes, I'm far happier when I'm writing as a man. I really don't know what girls are supposed to think – I must have missed the "How to be a Girl" lesson at school. Think I was off sick that day ... It's odd that whenever I dream, I'm definitely a man and a lot of my dreams, particularly when younger, were adventure-type stories which carried on from where I left off night after night. I can still remember some of them very clearly now. It's also strange that when I write as a man, I always use the first person approach, but when I write as a woman I use the third person. At least in my fiction. And I find it impossible to write anything the other way round. I'm not entirely convinced though that female writers are better at writing the opposite sex – for instance I think that EM Forster wrote some of the most powerful and interesting female characters around. But there are some male writers who, in my opinion, don't do women well – and no, I'm not naming names! But perhaps it's because women are more socially aware, if that's not too sweeping a statement? But at heart I'm not honestly sure – if anyone has the answer, please let me know!
I see from the notes at the back of A Dangerous Man that you thank an artist friend for help with the artistic sections of the book. Did you speak with her first and then write those bits or did you work the other way round?
No, I wrote the artistic sections first – after reading a couple of very thin and basic guides to drawing – and then contacted Penelope, whom I knew through the Writewords (http://www.writewords.org.uk) site, for help. She was kind enough to read through the whole work, and made some very useful suggestions. Including a few pieces of verbatim dialogue in the gallery sections towards the end, which she let me use! She also created the cover for me, which I think is wonderful, so I'm really glad I asked her.
Sticking with the art theme for a moment… although there are clear differences in the processes I got the feeling that when you write about Michael's need to draw you could often be talking about a writer's need to write?
Yes. A couple of people have picked up on this. I'm not an artist, though I love visiting art galleries, and often write poems about the art I see there. When I came to putting myself in Michael's shoes as he drew, I simply took the feelings I have about writing, what it means to me, how I approach it and how I do it, and put all that (pleasure and pain both!) into the descriptions of Michael's art. His feelings about his exhibition and desperately wanting to be known/seen are also my own feelings as a writer wanting to be read, and I suppose understood. So his vulnerability is also mine, I have to say.
Is research important to you and how do you set about researching a book or an idea for a book? How much time do you give to research?
I have to admit I don't enjoy research. And I do as little as possible. I don't research before I start a novel – but if things come up as I go, I find out more about them then, or if they're bigger issues, I leave them till the end and then sort them out. For instance, after the first draft of A Dangerous Man, I went up to London with my husband and spent a day in Hackney and Islington, walking around, making notes and taking photographs to help me in the edit. It was well worth it – I found the building that I made into Michael's gallery, and also Jack's house that way. And for those sections, I did draw internal plans of the layout, so I could work out what happened where and how they could get there. But I much prefer the creative part of the process – if research takes more than a couple of days or so, I get very restless.
Does intuition play a role in your research and writing process? Do you ever wait for your characters to speak to you as it were?
Yes. Very much so. I'm an organic writer – and I rarely plan, and even then never in detail. When I start writing, what comes out on the page/screen is usually a surprise – but that's what makes being a writer so very exciting; I don't know what's going to happen next either – it's a journey for me, as well as, I hope, for the reader. And yes, my male characters do speak to me; I can hear them very clearly in my head, and I always find it best to go along with what they say (within legal limits), even when I'm in the middle of writing something else. Michael has changed plot development in his novel – as have other of my male characters in other books – and occasionally very drastically. I also talk back to them. I realise it's a way of speaking to another part of myself, but it does help me unlock other ways of being which, in my outer life, I don't have access to.
Michael is a compelling character with a clear voice and the first person account provides the story with an immediacy and vibrancy that I imagine simply wouldn't be as strong if it were written in the third person. As I've made clear the first person account works for me but of course there are limitations with this approach… We're never sure if Michael really is as good an artist as he says he is for example. And I was dying to know a little more about the repulsive Paul. Was it always going to be a first person account, or did you experiment along the way?
Michael was always, from the start, written in the first person. He couldn't exist for me in any other way. From instinct, I steered clear from the third person account and I think it worked. I certainly enjoyed it – and got a lot of self-knowledge out of it too. Towards the beginning of the process, I did experiment with another, third person, voice who would act as a saner counterpoint to Michael (not anyone that made it through to the final character list) but I ditched it after a couple of days as my skin felt itchy when I was trying to write it and it made my stomach seize up. And you're right – I do feel Paul is probably the weakest character in the book – Michael never got to know him, for obvious reasons, and therefore neither did I. It still annoys me a little now, but I'm not sure what I could have done about it.
I see A Dangerous Man as a love story – on more than one level too – and it is a very sensual novel. There is very little sex in it though – was there a particular reason for this?
An interesting question! I've had all sorts of comments about this – ranging from "too graphic" to "not enough sex", so I'm not sure if there's anything I can do about it for the next one – at least not anything that will please everyone. I had the amount of sex in it that I was happy with (though there is a scene between Michael and Jack which I cut from the final version – because it was gratuitous rather than showing either of their characters or advancing the story much). And maybe that's the truth of it for me – I want the sex scenes to show character or to reveal people in another way which the reader may not have thought about before. It's the measure of their intimacy, with themselves or each other, and the main focus I have (or hope I have) is: how does this change the characters' emotions or their lives? So, for me, it's not really the physical act which counts, but what it carries with it.
The book has a pretty dark ending. Did you know from the outset how the tale would finish or did Michael himself dictate the finale?
Yes, it was always going to be dark, though I didn't know quite how it would happen until I got there. Some critics have placed it in the genre of "tragedy" and that's pleased me. Because the whole thrust of it, for me, was always going to be tragic. Michael certainly dictated the ending – or perhaps I should say that the two sides of me were working so well together by then that it flowed quite easily – in the sense that neither I nor my editor made any significant changes to the last two chapters, and I wrote them in one session, all of a piece. Much in the same way that I write my sex or violence scenes – I find them easier than anything, I have to say. Which probably says something rather sad about me of course …
A Dangerous Man is in a genre that seems to work for you. Will you stick with this (gay crime if you like) for a while?
I've certainly enjoyed the gay crime genre – two of my novels (one unpublished) have been in that area. Since A Dangerous Man though, I have also written a comedy set in a transvestite nightclub (Pink Champagne and Apple Juice), a psychological thriller about a bisexual (female) lecturer and I am just finishing off my first gay fantasy novel. So I'm a bit of a genre tart – which doesn't please publishers at all – but I like to think that my themes of intimacy (or the lack of it), death and split families remain constant – even in the comedies.
Can you tell us a little about your experience of working with small independent publishers, like Flame Books?
It's certainly been very different from my self-publishing experiences (both on my own and via a company formed with friends – Goldenford Publishers). I've thoroughly enjoyed having a commercially published offering in the market, but the small publishing world is very pressurised and often the communication between publisher and writer has been tricky. Not Flame Books' fault – as they're doing the best they can and are horrendously busy – but it's the way the publishing world is now. I have to say though how thrilled I am with their book production and with the editing help they provided. I do live for that moment though when I can say I've (a) met my publishers and (b) met my agent, in the flesh. Much of the small publishing world works entirely online these days. It's quicker, but perhaps you do miss that personal touch.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
No. I never had the confidence to imagine such a thing. It was only when I met my husband in my twenties that I gained confidence to write the stories/poems I've always imagined or thought of. I started with poetry, and then began fiction during a rather bad session of "poetry block" in the year 2000. Actually, I don't think of myself as a writer now. Or very rarely. It seems like an impossible pipedream – I see myself as a secretary who writes, as I work three days a week at the local university. And, of course, I never make any money from the writing – certainly not enough to live on by any measure.
Which writers inspire you and do you have/did you have a mentor?
I love Murakami, particularly The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I think is a modern masterpiece. And anything dark by Patricia Duncker is marvellous, as is Maria McCann's As Meat Loves Salt. How I wish McCann would write another one. I also found Barry McCrea's The First Verse utterly gripping, and I'm looking forward to his next work. I get most excitement and pleasure from writers who work on the dark side and aren't afraid to let that show. And I'd love to have a mentor – but I fear no-one would take me! If it could be Patricia Duncker, my dreams would be complete …
What advice would you offer to writers starting out on their careers who also need to earn a living?
Don't think that writing will earn you money. Ever! Unless you're very lucky or a celebrity (and even then it's not guaranteed), it won't. Take a part-time job if you can, but keep working and write round the corners of your day, in the evenings or at weekends. Make writing what you do for love, not what you do for any perceived "market". That way it'll be more real, more powerful and you'll still have a salary.
How do you approach developing and building your characters? What techniques would you offer to aspiring writers and novelists?
I tend to start writing and let the characters build. While the heat is on. Then, about a quarter to one-third of the way through, I fill in a character sheet for each person, e.g. hair & eye colour, build, accent, family, parents, education, great loves or hates, things they want, things they're most afraid of, etc. That really helps build things up from there. I may not use half of what I write down, but I know it and it's there and it helps make characters feel three-dimensional in the text. Other people who've used this method say it helps also, so it's not just me.
How long does it take you to develop one of your books from start to finish and do you run more than one project at a time?
It takes me about a year to 18 months to write a novel, and when I'm about 3/4s there, I do tend to start writing the beginning of the next one. But that hasn't worked with the current fantasy novel I'm writing – I have some vague ideas for a next project, but haven't started them yet, preferring to finish what I'm doing. This has been making me feel rather twitchy and wondering if I'll even have enough material to start anything else, but I do always get twitchy if something in my working method is different, so I'm trying to be calm about it.
If you are finding it hard going on a novel, or a writing project, do you question the validity of the project or do you accept that this is part of the process?
No, I think it's just part of the process. Sometimes writing a novel can be the hardest thing in life, and sometimes it just flows. I think it's simply the way it is. Apart from the times I've known something is seriously wrong, and that happens (so far) early on in the process, so I just drop it and move on. I must admit I'm finding the ending of my current novel-in-progress very hard-going, but I'm hoping to smooth it over in the edit, and I'm hanging on to the thought that once the ending is there then I'll (possibly) know more fully what I'm working with and things will become clearer. As you can see, I'm a great believer in hope – at least when it comes to writing.
You have written many short stories. What are the different disciplines and skills required for shorts as opposed to a novel?
A short story is a wonderful way of showing a more focused moment in a person's life, and you have to really work hard to squeeze everything into miniature in order to achieve the punch you need. Whereas in a novel, you can be slower, more subtle perhaps, and you can ease out into the longer timescale allowed. Then again, a novel is achieved in scenes – nobody sets out to write a novel; it's too frightening. But if you do a scene here and another one there (rather like a short story but with the ending held off), you can build it up over the months. And whatever genre you're writing in, a key factor is Commitment, Commitment, Commitment. And then more Commitment. Short stories and my current love – flash fiction (stories in 250 words or less, for me …) – are also a wonderful way of completing something and giving yourself a boost while you're working away on the longer projects.
You also write poetry – do you have a preferred genre or do they perform different functions/fulfil different needs?
I find I need the balance of writing that poetry and fiction provides. If I haven't done one particular genre for a while, I get very tense and need to get back to it. The poetry also feeds the fiction, I find, and vice versa. Sometimes I write poems from the point of view of my characters, and that really helps me get to know them better. Some readers have also said that my fiction flows well and can be poetic in nature, which always pleases me. On the whole, I tend to find that I write poetry more from my everyday "self" (unless I'm writing "in character") and fiction from somewhere deeper and more hidden. I appreciate it should perhaps be the other way round – as poetry is seen as a more intense genre – but it just isn't like that for me.
You are a member of a number of writing groups – both online and the more 'conventional' form. How do you benefit from these networks and what advice would give to new writers?
Writing groups are very helpful indeed – in whatever format. I get a lot out of my membership of the groups on Writewords and also find my membership of my local writers' group, Guildford Writers (http://www.guildfordwriters.net), is vital. Any writer needs an outside honest critical voice (as any actor needs a director), and both provide that in abundance. I would strongly recommend that writers find a friendly, supportive group to join – but be aware that you never ever lose the fear of reading your work aloud. It's part of being alive – but the results are well worth the fear, believe me.
You're involved in a new project – Pink Champagne and Apple Juice – can you tell me a little more about it and how members could get involved? This is your opportunity for a shameless plug!
Yes, http://www.pinkchampagneandapplejuice.com is a website dedicated to the novel I wrote in 2006 and which was published by Goldenford (http://www.goldenford.co.uk) from where the paperback version is still available. It was picked up by an internet marketer via Myspace and she kindly created a website for it which showcases the characters, possible film actors, cocktails, reviews and also includes a blog where you can put comments or start discussions. You can also download the first two chapters for free as a taster, and the eNovel is available at a very reasonable price. Membership of the site is free, and all are very welcome!
Many thanks Anne.
And, if you're not too tired after that run-through my mental incapacities, here's a very kind review which Laura also did:
Book Club - A Dangerous Man
Book review - Laura Wilkinson reviews A Dangerous Man by Anne Brooke published in paperback by Flame Books, £8
"When you want something badly enough, everything else fades away, including love and what it can mean."
If you recognise the author of A Dangerous Man it may well be because one of Anne Brooke's short stories, A Little Death, is published on http://www.hagsharlotsheroines.com. A Dangerous Man is Brooke's second novel and it hasn't been an easy journey to publication, though the quality of the work makes me wonder why not.
Perhaps this is because A Dangerous Man is an unusual book and one that defies easy categorisation, something that tends to give mainstream publishers the heebie jeebies. It is an extremely good book and one that has haunted me since I finished it. I am confident that many readers will devour this taut psychological thriller set in contemporary London in a couple of sittings.
It is a dark, brooding tale. From the outset it has the feel of a tragedy of almost Shakespearean magnitude, following as it does one man's vaulting ambition. That it will end in emotional and psychological bloodshed is never in doubt. It's fair to say that I'm not giving anything away here. The tension lies in the how and when, and Brooke builds this quite superbly.
Michael Jones, artist and part time prostitute, is a damaged man hell bent on destruction. Exploited by those who sense his vulnerability, he trusts only a select few and lets even fewer into his heart.
Until he meets wealthy Jack Hutchinson. "Tall, slim and with a way of dancing when he walked as if he was about to jump into the air simply with the joy of being alive," Jack transforms Michael's life and his fortunes, helping him to realise his ambition and stage his own exhibition. But no-one's past can be evaded forever and Michael's collides with his present with shattering consequences for all.
Drawing is an integral part of the essential Michael Jones and Brooke uses Michael's working methods as an artist as a metaphor for his soul. Michael works in black and white, sketching only in pencil or charcoal. He cannot allow colour into his life. Brooke shows a deep understanding of the creative process too and while she has clearly done her research into the art world she could as easily be talking about writing. She paints a very convincing portrait of an artist.
Characterisation is good all round and again Brooke uses Michael's craft as a way of outlining the other players: "[Jack's] mother, I thought, should be drawn with the sharpness of pencil, something in the H range which could indent the line, channelling her sharpness into paper and skin, and scoring blood out of whiteness."
London itself hovers in the shadows like a mugger waiting to pounce: grimy, edgy and menacing it constantly threatens to consume Michael. There are faint, one dimensional creations but this is because Brooke uses first person narrative – we see the supporting cast through our protagonist's eyes only but even the sketchiest characters are memorable and one in particular made my flesh crawl.
This novel is written with the seemingly effortless grace, and style, that has many a would-be novelist believing they could pen something similar. The fact is, of course, most couldn't. It is testament to Anne Brooke's mastery of her craft, and her readability, that she makes it all seem so, so easy.
Many thanks again, Laura – very much appreciated!
You're probably way too tired to read much more and deserve a gin – so go have one now, people! Or several. Suffice it to say that I am getting through the working day. Hope to have a lunchtime walk to clear my head after the struggles of last night's stab at editing Thorn in the Flesh. Didn't sleep so well either – way too hyped up. If I have coffee (which I need to keep awake), I fear I will be scrabbling on the ceiling all day.
Tonight, I'm off to the inaugural meeting of the Writewords (http://www.writewords.org.uk) London Literary salon, where Emma Darwin (award-winning author of The Mathematics of Love) and I will be reading from our work. Emma's doing prose, and I'm doing poetry. I did manage to get some practice in last night, and have remembered to bring all my necessary reading bits & pieces to work, so I hope I don't mangle it too much this evening. Am also hoping the event won't end too late, as I desperately need the sleep. It will be lovely though to meet some Writewords people in real life at last!
Ooh, and apparently I've sold two more copies of Pink Champagne and Apple Juice via Amazon – hurrah! But why is Amazon UK now insisting on saying that poor old A Dangerous Man is out of stock and completely unavailable? Was it something I said?? Groan!
Today's nice things:
1. The interview & review on http://www.hagsharlotsheroines.com
2. The London Literary Salon event
3. Selling two more copies of Champers.