Read the second part of my interview with novelist Will Carver, author of Girl 4, and The Two.
11. Considering the writing style that you’ve used, is telling a story from different character perspectives something you will continue with after the series has finished, taking into account your readers may well expect you to?
I have ideas for other novels – another series, stand-alone stories. Some are written or planned to be written in the third person, some in the first, perhaps even in both. This particular style is, I feel, the best way to tell the January David story so I don’t envisage using it for anything else unless I think it fits. I hope that, irrespective of the style I choose for different books, a reader will always be able to identify the writing as ‘Will Carver’, and come to know that above all else what they can expect of me is, that I will always try something different.
12. As you know, when a book is published it’s just one part of the overall process, how comfortable are you with the promotional side of things?
There are people who want to be rock stars and sing in front of thousands on stage, and there are actors who wish to be on the big screen playing to millions on an opening weekend.
And then there are writers.
Those people who work alone in a shed at the bottom of the garden, disappearing for months into a world they have created from nothing. Their words are turned into books which are then sold to readers around the world. This process is repeated until the writer dies and a stack of manuscripts are discovered in a filing cabinet buried in the walls of their attic. Even then, most people don’t recognise them from their picture.
Or so I thought.
There are literary festivals and crime gatherings and book launches and social networking. All the things I felt I wouldn’t feel comfortable with at all. I’m a writer; I express myself best with the written word. I work alone.
In actuality, I love the social networking side of things. It’s great to talk with other writers, especially those who were debut authors at the same time as me last year. It’s also a way to connect with the people who read my books, and that’s something I really embrace. Of course, it’s a very efficient way of publicising an event you may be attending or reminding people that your book is out soon, but I tend to keep that sort of thing to a minimum. I think it should be used for connection.
I was terrified of being on stage for the first time at a literary festival. What if I was asked to explain what verisimilitude was? What if I mumbled and couldn’t articulate my thoughts clearly? Of course, none of this happens. The people are there because they are interested in your book or your ideas. They don’t want to trip you up or make you look stupid. In the end it was a real thrill to do this. It was the same sense of trepidation I felt at going on to a rugby pitch for the first time. Once into the flow, it’s rather enjoyable.
There are authors who attend a lot of these events and there are some who do very few. It’s lovely to get invited – I’ll be back at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival in September – but, again, I see it as a way to connect with people who like my books rather than purely as a way to sell more books.
I think that there are so many avenues open for authors to engage in their own publicity to work alongside anything the publisher is undertaking and I have found that I am more comfortable with this than I thought I would be; I enjoy a lot of it. But, for me, there has to be a balance. The writing is the most important thing to me. A good balance, in my mind, is 90% writing and 10% promotion. In an ideal world it would be 100% writing, but that isn’t realistic. It’s a part of the job. You deal with it. You do it. And, if you’re lucky, you might even get a bit of a kick out of it.
13. Apart from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, what other books would you say have made a lasting impression on you?
When I was younger I believed that Nick Hornby wrote High Fidelity just for me. Talking It Over let me into the world of Julian Barnes’ literature and I still happily roam around in that land today. The Old Man and The Sea, firmly plants Hemingway’s sparse style as the greatest writing I have ever read while Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby shows just how beautifully the English language can be used. In terms of the books I have read recently, I’d have to say Fup by Jim Dodge, The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday and A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan have all lodged themselves into my memory for many years to come.
14. What do you think makes a good story?
Character. For me, it is all about character.
I don’t even need anything to happen. Sit five people around a table, let me hear what they are saying, then show me what they are thinking. I want a glimpse at the psychology, I want to ask questions. Whether I like or loathe a character, if I want to know more about them, then the job is done. They don’t even have to leave the room or even the table. Nobody has to die. Nobody has to argue. One person may not even speak. I’d find that person the most interesting. Probably.
Of course, it’s lovely to have a storyline that arcs or for the narrative to follow Todorovian principles but it only works with characters that are believable, people you want to know more about, those that are fictional but can elicit a very real reaction. I’ve already had several tearful responses to the death of Totty in The Two so I know I at least did my job with that character.
A simple plot can work if you have well-developed characters but this equation fails for me the other way round. I don’t mind if it is a book I can devour in a day or something I have to really work at for weeks; if I want to know how things end for a character then it’s a good story and I will keep turning the pages.
15. Equally, what do you think makes a good author?
In the same way that auteur theory in film deals with the creative ownership of the work – it’s very clear, for example, when you are watching a Martin Scorsese movie – I think the mark of a good author is their voice. For a reader to be able to pick up a book without looking at the cover, flick to a page, read it and know who wrote the words.
Of course, I also read and enjoy books with great stories that hurtle along or are simply a source of escapism for the same reason that I watched American Pie: The Wedding at the cinema and never switch channels when Forgetting Sarah Marshall is on TV. But in fifty years, people will still be talking about Hemingway in the same way they talk about The Godfather or Apocalypse Now. These are the risk-takers, the ones who tried something new. They owned their work, their style. This is the thing that separates the great from the good.
16. When you’re not writing how do you unwind?
I play the guitar a lot. I have a couple hanging on the wall behind my writing desk. I often allow myself a half-hour unwind in between bursts of writing, just to get my fingers moving in a different way. When I finish writing a book, I always give myself a few weeks off to experience the real world for a while, and that time is spent with my family. I have a two year-old daughter and a three month-old son so that keeps me very busy. I’m in a fortunate position that I can write anywhere at any time so I am able to spend a lot of time with my family anyway, but it is my favourite thing to do.
My other obsession is film. My collection stretches into the thousands and I like to watch one every day – it used to be three – unless I am working through a TV box-set with my wife. (Currently watching Mad Men.) We tend not to watch things week-by-week. It’s more fun to plough through a series in a few days. We used to watch each season of 24 in one sitting. So, when I’m not in front of my computer screen, I can often be found in front of the television or the front row of a cinema.
17. What do you think are the most important things for any aspiring writer to learn?
You often hear that you should ‘write what you know’. I do not subscribe to this. I think it can invariably lead to the discovery that one actually knows very little. I think you should write what you want to know. Use your writing to explore a question you do not know the answer to. Research and discover. I don’t even think that you have to read everything in the genre you want to write in – I had never really read any crime fiction before writing Girl 4 or The Two. Since meeting other crime authors, though, I have read a whole lot more. If I meet an author, I will read their book. But it isn’t necessary for my own writing. There are films, TV shows, documentaries, non-fiction, books from other genres that you can draw inspiration from.
I think one of the most important things for any aspiring writer is to get feedback. Have someone read your book and let you know what they think. Do not let this person be somebody who loves you. Your parents or sibling or partner are not going to be brutal enough, and brutality is what is needed. The complete truth. I think this is true for any writer. You are too close to the subject to be objective. You’ve slaved over the prose for however long and you are proud of what you have achieved. You can’t see which parts are not working, which paragraphs are laborious, which chapters need to be shredded.
When my agent read my first book – the one before Girl 4 – she liked my style but the story didn’t work; I was concentrating on the wrong aspect of the story. She suggested that I take time to think about it and rewrite the entire thing again. From the beginning. It was the best piece of advice I ever took. I rewrote the entire book. It wasn’t published but it made me a better writer. To not seek proper feedback, to be too precious over your words, is, I think, imprudent, indolent and impatient.
Once your book is published, whether traditionally or independently, it will come under scrutiny and harsh critique anyway, so you may as well get used to this early on and make sure you put it out in the best shape possible.
The Two is available now, and if you’re still wondering what verisimilitude means (Q12), it’s the “appearance of being real or true.”
To read part one of the Will Carver interview, please click here