Interview with Simon Barber - Faber Academy Alumna
We met in a cafe in Tunbridge, Kent to talk about the experience's of writing as unpublished authors. Against the backdrop of busy Barista's and crying babies we managed an enjoyable conversation with lots of laughter. Simon is currently writing
The Man in The Television.
Me: Thank you for your time Simon, it's really lovely to catch up with you again. We met on the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course under the guidance of Joanna Briscoe. For those who don't know you, tell us a little about yourself.
Simon Barber (SB): Thank you, and I'm an aspiring novelist like you, so obviously the whole world wants to hear about my story! For my day job, I'm a librarian.
Me: What came first, being a librarian or being a writer?
SB: Writing first of all, because I was doing a degree part time with the OU, and needed a job. I fell into it really.
Me:What made you want to be a writer? Can you remember when you thought, 'that's it I'm going to write?'
SB: That's a tough question. It's like a weird compulsion we have. I was out with friends and walked past a local arts centre and there was a poster hanging up for a creative writing course in the area. I'm not even sure what happened, not a light bulb moment, I just thought I'll do that! I found it quite interesting and didn't even think at all I could do it, or even attempt to as I'm dyslexic. I don't read even good now. It just didn't seem like an option, something that you could do; its something other people do! Like, you just think writers are the Bloomsbury Set, not for mere mortals like us! It's about that weird drive, no matter how unconfident you are something still makes you want to do it, and where does that come from?
Me: I think I've always wanted to write, ever since I could put pen to paper. For as long as I can remember it's always been so. At school I was channelled into a completely different direction (the health service). Many years later I gave up work to write full time, and now I can't imagine doing anything else, and why has it taken me so long?
SB: I know, the need (to write) builds up doesn't it? Once you get started into it, and like for a lot of people, breaking in to it, to make it part of your life. I don't tell people I'm a writer, because you then get that dreaded question, 'Oh, published anything?'
Me: But most of us are unpublished so it's OK to be asked.
SB: The other thing is, for me, writing has got an image problem! It sounds so pretentious! 'I'm a writer.' I've tried to finds ways of phrasing it, making it sound more workaday, 'I do a bit of creative writing, yer know!' I suppose its because of the weird mixture of doubts and arrogance it takes to be a writer, because it is such a lunatic thing to do! In effect it's like running into the room and going, 'everyone, shut up and listen to me!' When it's good it is the best feeling ever, more than being excited. It's genuine happiness.
Me:Creative types, be it artists, musicians or writers will totally get that.
SB: You feel bad if you can't do it. You know, it's like something is really wrong.
Me: Do you have any routines, rituals or habits when it comes to writing?
SB: Well I know some of the advice given is to get up early, go to a coffee shop and write, but I can't even remember my name at that time of morning! So I try to schedule time on my calendar at home and say that I'm doing an hour in the evening. That way you're kind of making sure that you do. It's like one of those people who say that they're going to read the hundred best books in a year! But you know that they are going to fail straight away because they have made it into some sort of horrible challenge. Whereas it should be about enjoying the time spent reading. So I think writing takes up so much of our time and energy, you've got to enjoy that time you're putting into it.
Me: It is writers getting the balance between reading other books and writing our own stories - one feeds into the other. Both take energy, commitment and focus. I used to be worried that I would somehow plagiarise someone-elses work, but you don't of course, and it may well spark off your own unique ideas instead.
SB: Even if you do channel other things, it becomes part of your voice. It's not something I worry about really.
Me:You're writing a novel at the moment, The Man in The Television. Where do your ideas come from? Plot or characters first?
SB: That's a good question! It's had different forms over the years. One of the things is that you have unconscious pre-occupations. Maybe the same idea, but it changes form over time. This one, I liked the idea of doing something from
horror, or fantasy. Populate with my own characters and it takes the lead from other things. One of the things I like is old television - a very niche thing to say! Like your Forsthye Saga, for example. Or when I was very young, Dr Who was my big influence. I owe it a lot because I learnt to read. I was struggling, even by the age of eleven, with a sentence. Because of my dyslexia, the books that I read took me two months to read 200 pages. So these things like old television are part of your childhood, it's your own mythology. Then you get older and realise it's (old TV programmes) not something that most other people share, you know? Unless they are of a certain age. My central idea (for my novel) was this Steed character (from The Avengers); a gentlemen about town. I need to make him grow somehow, infect him with the real world. There's this thing, the difference between male stories that are American super hero's; they have extraordinary strength or speed, for example. With British hero's they always have a characteristic. Sherlock Holmes is the cleverest man that ever lived. James Bond is the most potent man that ever lived. So that was the key thing. I wanted a man who, he takes an ordinary thing, in this case he's emotionally closed down, a bit dead inside, and take it to that cartoonish extreme. It all had that thickness of theatricality. That's really the tone of the whole thing. All my characters have a sixties, repertory way of speaking that I really like, and where I start to go with it.
Me: The small part of your draft story that I've read, is that the theatricality frames the setting for the story. It's the feeling that it gave me.
SB: Yes, the unique selling point is the tone. It's atmosphere and stuff. But I won't really be able to sell that until I've finished.
Me: Does the story frame the characters, that drives the plot?
SB: It's a kind of exercise. I had an idea. I was doing a play writing course at one point and one of my ideas was to be a pastiche of like, 'An Inspector Calls.' I even wanted to mimic the production values of the sixties TV show. A couple of people on the course were actors and were like, "Do you think you could write a sixties play?" I wanted to do something that was real not fake, but fictional. Real fiction resembles the real world. Characters resemble real people, and as a writer you are resembling reality. So I'm coming from that it is a presentation point of view. I think people on the Faber course thought it was weirdly manic, plotted and sort of, gothic!
Me: Do you have any top tips for writers?
SB: You have to make time for it, that's really important. Some days are spent staring out the window, and other days you're in full flow. You say to yourself to sit for an hour and then the morning's gone. Or the day even. Writers block is awful, just horrible but you have to keep going regardless. Then you get an amazing idea that completely transforms the scene. Just because you feel rubbish today, doesn't mean that tomorrow you will feel the same!
Me: I think non-writers feel that the process is easy! But writing is hard, difficult work.
SB: And exhausting! Someone, somewhere did a study that was trying to find out, what fatigues people? They found it was making decisions. It uses up mental capitol, more than anything else. When you're writing there's nothing else but making book decisions. Just constantly changing things, trying to make it work. The hardest part is getting started with all the extraordinary doubts and anxieties that go with it.
Also, go to creative writing groups and classes like we did. It's not just about meeting deadlines with your work, it's about sharing your work; peer review. It toughens you up for the world of Writing. Giving and receiving feedback is tricky. You don't want to be 'nice' about it, there's no point. But you don't want to cut people down either, especially if they are relative novices. Keep hold of your written feedback - the good and the bad - to review at a later date as necessary.
Another thing, get a laser printer! They're brilliant and they never go wrong! Do whatever it takes to get one!
I'm Facebook friends with writers and it's quite heartening that they have the same doubts and nonsense of the business that we have, and they're published writers. Some writers don't reveal all because it takes away from the mystery of it all.
Me: I think the Faber course helped to break down the mystique of writing. Taking writing down to the bones, and that we all have to go through the same processes in creating something, whether you're new to it or have been published.
SB: Mystique is bang on the nail! That's exactly the whole problem. It shuts people out, makes it an exclusive thing. Not like a process we can all take part in.
Me: There's something very human about wanting to share something creative. It is about vulnerability and putting yourself out there to reach out to others.
SB: Trouble is, there's a real hierarchy, a snobbery around books and being 'well read.' There's going to be all these kids like me who will think that they're no good for this sort of thing and it's not true.
Me: It's partly why it's taken me so long to get here! On the other hand, I've a lot of life experience that now feeds into the creative process.
SB: I'm trying to read more female writers because all the so called important books are being written by men (as in being promoted) so all I'm hearing are male voices. Woman like Hilary Mantelle, Sylvia Plath and Charlotte Perkins and the like. Women write what they feel will be a good experience for their reader; men seem to write with their ego. Showing off! 'Look what I've done, isn't it clever!' I've never felt that way about women writers.
Me: Take Maeve Binchy, she writes beautifully. The rhythm of her words, the beautifully drawn characters. She makes it seem so simple yet its actually quite complex.
SB: To write simply and clearly takes huge skill. It's when you see all the pyrotechnics, all the 'cleverness' is a smokescreen, it just gets in the way.
Me: What books are you reading at the moment?
SB: Mainly research for my book.
Also read Robin Oldes, who was a US pilot in WW2, an amazing story! I got to the end and realised he's been writing like an out of body experience, like he's a very old man, and he's been re-living his life. The detail he goes into and the feelings are quite extraordinary. A book I wouldn't have normally have read, but I now understand his motivation and why he did the things that I read about. Then I have a character (in my book) who I thought should be Irish and so I read Ulysses. Such a weird book and there's lovely stuff in there too!
This Irish character of mine, I went out for a run, and there was this old boy sitting on the kerb. Thin as a rake, tweed-like fedora. Long grey beard and he was just sitting there drinking a pint of milk! He tipped his hat with a wink when he saw me. Not something you see every day! When I returned from the run, he was gone but a rocking horse was in his place. You think, there's a story there!
Me: Your favourite books?
SB: Hard question to answer. David Seders, though I'm not sure I can pick just one of his - it's like picking a favourite child. He is amazing and his prose is lean, clean and simple. The humour. He finds the oddity in people. Plays around with perspective and feeling. You can be moved by his stories and laugh out loud. For sentimental reasons,
The Dr Who books when I was young, as it was the first time I read something and became aware of the writing, rather than the TV series. You could see what the author was doing and understand the cleverness of it.
There was also a book called, Alien Bodies, by a not well known writer called Lons Mars. He doesn't do much these days. He had such a peculiar voice. He could lump things together that you wouldn't expect, like from his own background. Mixing ancient mythology with Hanna Barbera cartoons!
Orlando by Virginia Wolfe is another. Its a classic case of being on a literary course and forced to examine it! She's been a hero of mine ever since because of the cleverness of it. It's like a pastiche of a biography but the subject doesn't make any sense. They change gender, or the place in history shifts. She's wrestled with the same things that we do, and had it a lot worse, I mean, she drowned herself.
Me: Wow thank you Simon, we've spent an amazing couple of hours talking about all things writing. Thank you for your time.