02nd Sep2014

Interview with Peggy Riley

by Lloyd Paige


Peggy Riley is a writer and playwright. Amity & Sorrow was her first novel and amongst other things, she has been a festival producer, and a bookseller. She’s now completed her second novel and in this interview, she talks to me about her work and the creative process behind it.

1. Hi Peggy, how did you choose the names for your characters and with Amaranth, decide what her flaws should be?

The girls’ names arrived as the girls did, fully formed and ready to go. Puritans and Quakers have long used attributes as names and, while I was creating my own faith from scratch, I wanted its roots in the history of American religious tradition. Particularly in faiths that are “set apart” as those were. Amaranth’s name came straight away as well, along with her journey toward understanding what it meant.

I am interested in flawed characters – we’re all so terribly flawed, no matter how enlightened we might try to be! Amaranth’s character flaws emerged from the series of very bad choices she made through the creation of her family and its faith. I didn’t want her to be a monster in any sense and while I don’t wish to excuse any of her actions or beliefs, I hope her flaws are understandable in the context of her history as it unfolds, backward, through the story.

2. What challenges did you face in your attempt to separate the characteristics of Amity and Sorrow?

I think the greater challenge was to find their similarities, to see how different I could make them and still have the physical connection that they do, being tied together as they are. I knew they would manifest their names as they grew up and that their birth order, and how they were treated in the faith would greatly alter how they were raised, how they saw themselves, and how they viewed the outside world.

…there were things I wanted the reader to know.”

3. You seem to take a great deal of time cultivating the characters you write about, does that mean you’re determined to make them as realistic as possible?

They have to feel real to me before I can look through them or get inside them. I do spend a lot of time trying to get to know them, particularly to get a sense of if they are the right character for the job of telling the story. In my first draft, Amity carried the bulk of the narrative and I toyed with Sorrow having a point of view, but her “insides” are pretty tough going for a reader. Inside, she is a big bundle of sorrow and fear; she’s also particularly untrustworthy, and I didn’t want to play with that in this book.

However, Amity’s innocence was a bit relentless – there were things I wanted the reader to know that she could not and should not. Amaranth’s story and point of view were much harder for me to write than Amity’s, but she had much more “work” to do as a character. They feel very real to me, even now. I hope they feel real to readers.

4. Is it important for authors to be able to ‘feel’ their characters as they write?

It is for me, but I’m sure all authors are different. I think you can look “at” a character without “feeling” them, but I would have trouble writing “through” or “from” them without it. I need to feel their insides before I can get them to talk and tell me anything, to ask them questions and to know whether or not I can completely trust them. In talking about how characters come, how they speak for themselves and make choices we don’t expect, it can sound like a possession. Actually, that is often what it feels like.

5. Rewriting a story, or parts of it, is often needed but at what point did you feel that enough was enough with Amity & Sorrow?

If someone asked me for a rewrite today, I’d have a go. I find it very hard to stop rewriting, as evinced by the great whacking stack of drafts I have per book. I trust when my editor says – enough. You’re done. Still, it doesn’t stop me editing material when I read it aloud. Amity & Sorrow is marked up from readings I’ve done. I can’t help myself.

Writing Amity & Sorrow, I was learning to write fiction.”

6. I understand that your latest book, (as of yet unpublished) takes place at a women’s internment camp on the Isle of Man during World War Two. We all know the setting is important for any book, so why there?

It is a setting and story that has haunted me since first visiting the island in 2001. I have been back so many times since then, learning the story of the women’s internment camp and then working on my own stories. I was commissioned by the Isle of Man Arts Council to write a play about it and now, as a novelist, I find I still can’t let go of it. Another possession!

7. Have you approached its construction in the same way that you approached Amity & Sorrow?

Not at all. Writing Amity & Sorrow, I was learning to write fiction. I trained as a playwright and I was grappling with the logistics of fiction, how to get characters in and out of chapters. I learned a lot so I thought I’d be further ahead with the second book but its story is much more complicated and there are far more characters.

In Amity & Sorrow, I knew who the characters were and I knew I wanted the history of the cult to “unzip”, to unravel from the forward-moving narrative. With the second book, I have tried on any number of characters and structures and frames. The story could be written a million different ways. Hopefully, I’ve picked the right way for me.

I hope readers will follow my characters through all their twists and turns.”

8. What else can you tell us about it?

I just finished what I hope will be the last draft at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in upper state New York. You have to apply to get a residency there and I was over the moon to be accepted. In woods where writers and artists have been making work for more than a hundred years, you’re given a room and a desk. They feed you and stay out of your way. I was able to work there with more focus than I even knew possible. Part of me feels I will be rewriting my second novel for the rest of my life, while the other part thinks that maybe, just maybe, I’m done.

9. What are your hopes for the new story in terms of how it will be perceived by the general public?

I hope people will read it and find a compelling story about a little known history. I hope readers will follow my characters through all their twists and turns. It is a dark story – that’s what I do – but all writers write to be written – it’s all we want.

10. Did you ever find yourself sprinkling it with some of the aspects that made Amity and Sorrow popular, or did you try completely new things with the writing?

I struggled with the construction of the second book quite a bit. I felt a responsibility to the Isle of Man, to the former internees and the local elders who grew up in the camp. The cult in Amity & Sorrow was my own creation, whereas the camp has a real history. I feel a responsibility for getting the facts right, but I am aware that I mustn’t be constrained by them. I think every book is its own animal.

I’m unaware of what similarities there might be between the books other than they are about communities of women trying to make sense of their situations, whether in a polygamous cult or an internment camp in the second world war, when four thousand women were arrested and held without charge on an island none of them even knew existed.

11. Have you ever had any difficulty injecting tension into your narrative, and do you think that your background as a playwright has helped to enhance your writing, perhaps giving you the ability to come at it from a different angle?

My training as a playwright makes me look for conflict and drama between characters, people who will choose and change. As such, I tend to deliver conflict through confrontation and dialogue, rather than internally. I still have my sensibility as a playwright, of trying to keep things moving, making scenes and exchanges as brisk and tight as I can.

I like a short play and I like a short book. But I am aware that I’m not writing a play – I can’t deliver the whole of the thing through dialogue, nor do I want to. Fiction does let you stop and look around far more than drama ever could.

Setting is very important to me – the world of the piece – and fiction allows me to explore it in a way that would be very indulgent in a play. Most theatre is proscenium and straight ahead; unless it is immersive you do not get closer to characters. You can’t step away from them. You follow the speed of the actors, their rhythms, and you attend it communally. Fiction is far more personal and there is more time, more room, far more freedom. I’m having great fun with the possibilities.

12. For you, what does it mean to be an author?

My UK editor calls me “Dear author” in her emails and it makes my heart leap. I never expected to be an author and I do love the sound of it but in my head I’m just a writer, trying to make sense of the world and the things that frighten me.

13. To someone that has never read your work, how would you describe your writing?

The very hardest question! I’m interested in women’s stories and how communities come together and fall apart. I’m interested in difficult choices, difficult characters, and dark histories. Little, Brown says I write, “literary page turners,” and I don’t think I can top that.

14. Finally, you’ve had fiction aired on BBC Radio, plays commissioned, been a festival producer, and writer-in-residence. Have any of those experiences helped you in handling the expectations of being an author?

I’ve had a lot of different careers and I’ve taken a lot of knocks. I’ve written in a lot of contexts and environments, for and with a lot of different kinds of groups. From communities to elders, to offenders, to professionals of all forms. Whoever you’re working with or for, it is the work that matters not me as an author. It is the work made, to be read or heard or seen, that will endure, I hope, long after the writer who is me is gone.


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