*For a while-maybe even three, four years ago-I interviewed several writers, but ended up deleting the posts. So, until they’re all a part of the blog, I’ll be re-posting them again!*
This is an interview with Philip Gross-who I badly wanted to interview after reading The Lasting. (What a great book!) Please bare in mind that this interview is from a few years ago, and may have some outdated information.
Q1: How did you start out as a writer and was it hard?
I guess we all start as writers by writing – can’t help ourselves – and in my case that was from the age of nine or ten, handing in ‘compositions’ for primary school homework that really wanted to be novels, to the mixture of pleasure, approval and oh-God-not-again you’d expect from busy teachers. Or do you mean acquiring the status of ‘writer’ as some kind of job. I have never just written for a living, and very few people do. But since around 1980 I have been a writer in the sense that whatever other work I do has been geared to it, to help it, to allow it.
Q2: Have you ever suffered from writers block?
I’m not sure the term is useful, and it risks being scary in itself, like believing in the Evil Eye or ghosts. There are many sorts of experience of not finding the way forward, or the oomph that lifts the words into being a new and living thing… and some of them are necessary, call it ‘lying fallow’. I probably protect myself from the naked experience of it by being too busy to notice the gaps. And there have been periods, months on end when I’ve felt as if I’m not writing, but when I look back at the notebooks later on I find all kinds of things that slipped through. For advice, I’d say: when you get that blank feeling, just consider that it knows what it’s doing; something might be going on in the mist and you shouldn’t interfere with it just yet.
Q3: What are the best and worse things about your job?
Which job? I am a university lecturer as well as a writer, and also a writer in schools – I’ve just come back from a week of residencies across Devon. The best and the worst thing about the total job of being what I am is the constant multi-tasking, like playing squash on a court with six opponents and who knows how many balls?
Q4: If you were writing another novel, would you ever collaborate with another writer? If so who would it be?
What an intriguing idea. I’ve collaborated with another poet – Sylvia Kantaris, on The Air Mines of Mistila, which had something of the verse-novel about it. I like collaboration, though working with people from other art forms is the most appealing – you can really revel in your difference, with no competition. But you’ve suggested a possibility I haven’t been faced with yet. I don’t have time right now, but if I had… I’m open to offers!
Q5 :How and when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
In that sense of ‘be’ (remember what I said a bit earlier)… around the time of the birth of my daughter, in 1978. It wasn’t a conscious connection at the time, but seems obvious now.
Q6: Are you like Roald Dahl in a sense that you have a special writing place?
Very little like Roald Dahl. I have a beard, for a start, and you know what he was like about beards… And I have no shed, or writing rituals. I am a nomad, and drift round the house with my laptop. Or I grab moments of free thinking between other programmed moments, eg on the train.
Q7:Do you have a day to day routine when writing a novel?
This question does give me a twinge, because the one thing I can’t contemplate right now is how ever to find space to start another novel. (The poetry seems to spring up through the cracks; big fiction can’t.) I know I need periods of several days when I can go to sleep with a question in my mind and wake up with an answer, without having to attend to e-mails and botherment first.
Q8:When writing, do you plan out the plot, or write it straight from your head?
For fiction, I can’t help planning ahead. I was sometimes a chess player. And I need the reassurance of a road map when I start. But I always hope to be hijacked.
Q9: For aspiring writers, could you name any resources?
Arvon courses – five day residentials where you work with a couple of experienced writers and a group of a dozen or so – the formative experience for lots of emerging writers, when they first find themselves among people who see it as mattering in the same way that they do.
Q10:If you weren’t a writer, what other job would you do?
See the answers above – I already do. A bit too much, in fact.
Q11: Are you in contact with any other writers? If so who?
I teach in a university (Glamorgan) where all several excellent writers teach on the staff, and colleagues here and in other universities, and people I meet by doing readings and workshops with them do form an important web of contacts. At some times in the past it mattered to me hugely to be part of a writing workshop. I’m thinking of one, years ago in Bristol, with Helen Dunmore as another member, and several other people at different stages of publication but all valuable parts of the organism the whole group was.
Q12: To any child who wants to be a writer, could you give them any tips?
Mmm… Write. Make yourself a space where you can write freely, without judging it to soon. Let things happen. And then, a little later, look back at it as if you were the reader, and see what you’d change or improve. Sharing writing with other people helps with this – you practice being each other’s good readers, which makes you better writers too.
Q13:What was the aim in writing your novel The Lasting?
You’re assuming that the ‘aim’ comes first…? I had a sense of the place, and the characters. I wanted to see what they would do! (That isn’t a joke. A story might have questions and feelings locked up in it that you only find by writing.)
Q14: Who are you most like: Paris or Tahr?
I suspect we have to have just a little of each of the characters in us somewhere… and of course, just by being human, we do. To be Tahr, you would have to have been brought up in that culture, and not have been exposed to the level of choice we want (and so does he) – the kind of choice of which poor Paris has a toxic overdose.
Q15:When writing, do you have any solutions to things that go wrong?
In the writing? Get up, walk around. Have a coffee. De-focus. I’m probably staring at it too fixedly to see what’s in front of my face.
Q16:How does it feel to have your novel The Lasting studied in schools?
All stories want to be inhabited, so I’m glad. I just want teachers and students to know that they have the right to get inside it and explore it with their own imagination. I want them to feel I’m offering them questions, not trying to teach them answers. I would like to see it used for exercises in ‘creative reading’ where the response comes in the form of writing stories or poems of their own.
Q17:What is your opinion on westernised society, as some messages have been conveyed through The Lasting?
As I said, the book consists of questions, not answers. Clearly I’m worried by everything the Ultimate Diners Club represents – something beyond ordinary greed: a kind of addictive reaching for more and more, including more and more extreme sensations, that never gets satisfied. That’s the message of the image of the Hungry Ghosts. The more you have the more you want. When the earth turns out to be finite after all, it means we’re in a fix. But I’m not a monkish ascetic or a moralist. I have and enjoy that most human trait (one we share with most mammals, in fact) of curiosity. The hard thing, the elegant balance that a Buddhist would hope for, is to see the difference between a healthy curiosity and a bottomless addictive greed.
Q18: Do you think it is right for the Government to put slang words into GCSE books, then complain it is affecting grades of the participants?
We need to be bi- or multi-lingual between lots of registers of language. Most young people are, speaking differently in the classroom, in the playground, in the family, at the club… We just have to know how to use the right register for the people we’re speaking or writing to. Language breeds and evolves all the time, and elements of ‘slang’ now become part of the mainstream tomorrow; others don’t, and just look stupidly dated by next year. We’re paddling the boat of writing on a sea of shifting tides and currents.
Q19: Will there ever be a sequel to The Lasting?
I hope there are lots of them, going on right now inside different readers’ heads. Maybe some day someone will write one!
And now for one final random question, as I’m sure you get bored of being asked about your novel ………Q20: What would you rather be and why :
-Be forever more thirteen for the rest of your days?
-Be born old, then grow young?
I didn’t enjoy being thirteen, or the few years that came after, so no no no, not that! My Cornish aunt, who was prone to saying things like this, described me as an ‘old soul’ as a baby. I’m growing as young as I can.