Writer & Stand-Up Viv Groskop: Laughter Lines

Catching The Comet'sTailThis week, Catching the Comet’s Tail features writer and stand-up Viv Groskop. Her memoir ‘I Laughed I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life’ is based on the diaries she kept during a marathon run of 100 stand-up gigs in 100 nights. The story of Groskop’s whirlwind entrance into the world of stand-up comedy  is also a moving and inspiring tale of motherhood, mid-life, following your dreams and the addictive qualities of Diet Coke. Viv is taking a live version of the book to the Edinburgh Fringe in August and if you get a chance to see her perform, you’ll be witnessing one of the rising stars of British stand-up. Also, she’s one of the few people on the planet capable of recounting the entire history of feminism in rap form.

Viv_GroskopViv on creativity

“I know this is really pathetic but I am slightly embarrassed by the grandiosity of words like “creativity” and “muse”. And I generally take a step back from someone who defines themselves as an “artist”. Unless they are Salvador Dali. I think sometimes these terms can put people off making stuff up and getting the job done (which is all “creativity” really is). That said, I am going to say something truly and massively pretentious: the root of the word “creative” comes from the Latin “believe” (“creo”). And if you want to create anything – if you want to do anything at all, really — it helps if you believe in yourself and in what you are doing. Now please excuse me whilst I go and take a call on my lobster telephone.”

 Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early literary and comedy influences?

“I initially wanted to be a nurse. Then I wanted to be a teacher. But then around the age of six I started watching a lot of television and reading a lot of books and suddenly I wanted to perform or write. This is fortunate as I would have been an “angel of death” nurse and a “why are you so stupid?” teacher. There’s a whole section in I Laughed, I Cried about watching Doris Schwartz (Valerie Landsburg) in Fame. She was the geeky one who wasn’t pretty enough to be an actress so decided to become a stand-up. I was obsessed with her in the early 1980s. Doris downgraded from actress to stand-up. I downgraded from stand-up to writer. Because even writing seemed like an impossible thing for me to do. I really had no idea how to go about doing any of these things. Which is probably why it has taken me until the age of forty to start a lot of the stuff I should have started a long time ago.”

How long did it take to put together I Laughed, I Cried

“I had an impulse to do 100 gigs in 100 nights long before I decided that I wanted to write about it. And even after I had done it, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to put it out there as a story in a book. I had found myself in a strange and unique position in my mid thirties: I could change direction in my life if I wanted to (because I’m freelance as a writer) without completely up-ending my life. Once I realised that, I started to perform comedy because I did not have an excuse not to. My progress was agonisingly slow, though, because life was always getting in the way. I needed a push and a fixed time frame to push me up to 100 gigs. I didn’t want to feel that I had to write about it. And I didn’t know if I would want to write about it, especially if it failed and (spoiler alert) I didn’t get to the end of the 100 gigs. I got a deal to write the book (through a literary agent) about six months after I finished the 100 gigs and I wrote the book in the next nine months, based on extensive diaries I had written during the process.

I still don’t know if I should have written about it. As the book doesn’t make me across as (a) a very nice person or (b) a very good stand-up. In my defence it all happened in 2011 and I can pretend that was a very long time ago.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity and what is guaranteed to kill it?

“The internet both kills and inspires everything. I waste millions of hours on Twitter, Facebook and aimless Google searches. I had to go to a library with no Wifi in order to get the book finished. I’m always researching these “block-your-social-media” apps you can put on your computer. But I know it would be pointless as I get most of my ideas and my information from the internet as well as all the distraction and wasted time. I think it’s a pretty good trade-off, to be honest. I’m constantly collecting ideas and chasing stories without having any idea whether they will lead to anything. They might turn into a phrase in a joke or a magazine article or the germ of another book or an idea that I can pass on to someone else who could make something better out of it than I can.”

What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?

“I find that I get less blocked the more things I work on. I have a lot of things on the go at once and usually they require different skills. I do a lot of book reviewing and that means sorting through books and ideas and publication dates. I perform at a lot of events and that means rehearsing and memorising stuff. And I’m putting together the programme for next year’s Independent Bath Literature Festival which means coming up with original and exciting ideas and getting people together who don’t necessarily want to leave their room. If I’m not making much progress in one area, I just move to another for a while. By the time I get back to what I started on, I can see it with fresh eyes. (Also I pay for childcare by the hour and this is extremely motivating.)”

Is there a collaborative element to your work or do you prefer to work alone?

“I hated working with other people for many years. I nearly killed people when I worked in magazine and newspaper offices in my mid twenties. I am a born freelancer. In recent years, though, I’ve changed. I am marginally less childish and more curious. I love performing improv and that has really changed how I relate to other people. In improv you have to say “yes, and…” to everything. You can’t block the other person or shout them down or contradict their ideas. (Which would be my natural inclination in most situations. Like I said, I am a really nice person.) After about three years of performing improv, I find that I am genuinely interested in what other people think, often especially if I disagree with them.”

Please talk a bit about the environment you like to be in to create…

Viv Groskop workspace“I do most of my writing on a MacBook Air sitting on my bed or at the kitchen table. I lost my “office” to a child’s room a long time ago. There is no such thing as an ideal writing environment and seeking it out only wastes time which you could use to write. I write on the Notes function on my phone. I write on receipts. I have written on train tickets, on my hand and on toilet paper (Soviet toilet paper is particularly effective). If you have a good idea or a turn of phrase, write it down and put it somewhere. It might come in handy. (Also, you might lose it. But that doesn’t matter. If it’s really important, it will find a way back to you.) Maybe I would be a better writer if I had the perfect room or silence or many more hours of childcare paid for by a wealthy benefactor. But things are how they are and you have to work around them. If you waited for the ideal conditions, you wouldn’t do anything at all.”

Do you have a daily routine when you are writing? 

“I don’t really believe in routine. When you have the chance to work, work. I do find that if I can get up really early, I can get loads done in the hours before anyone else is awake and before there is much going on internet-wise. Sadly, I am hopeless at getting up early so this is not a great solution.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity? 

“Being a parent really changed everything for me and made me much more proactive and efficient at everything. It’s partly the practical side of things: if you’re going to pay someone else to look after your kids so that you can work, then you had better bloody well do some work. But it’s partly a more nebulous, kick-ass thing. I began to think, “You brought these children into the world. You better show them what it’s like to live life to the full. Otherwise what’s the point?” I am still reticent about a lot of things and scared of a lot of things. But having children has meant that I really care a lot less about the things that don’t matter. (Like what “other people” think about you — who are they anyway?) Without my children and my husband, I would never have done stand-up, I would never have discovered improv and I would be some kind of weird, alcoholic, depressed and repressed hack from hell. Having a miscarriage between my second and third child was probably the best thing that ever happened to me: it made me realise that life is short and precious and you’re not in control of anything.”

Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process and tell us about it. 

Viv Groskops fish“This is an “articulated fish” which belonged to my grandma, Vera. She made a real point of referring to it as an “articulated fish”. (Its scales actually move so that it wiggles when you touch it.) There was a vogue for them in the 1970s and my grandma used to wear one on a long pendant over a stripy boatneck sweater with nylon “slacks”. I always associate it with her. She had an incredible enthusiasm for life and was a real one for just keeping going no matter what. I don’t wear it all the time but sometimes I put it on just so that I can feel like I’ve got a bit of her about me. It’s not magic but it’s nice and wiggly and sometimes you just need a bit of a wiggle.”

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master? 

“I love acting, I love clowning, I love singing, I love trying to find out about what makes audiences fall under the spell of what’s happening in front of them. I used to play the piano as a child and I miss that. If I could start all over again there’s so much I would do. I would train my voice. I’d learn to do accents properly. I would go to RADA, darling. Instead I read a lot of books about the Meisner technique (it’s an acting thing, a bit like method acting) and I’m a member of the Actors’ Centre. I occasionally go to auditions for roles which require “plus size” ladies. (I’m not joking, it’s a whole genre. I almost got a really big role for a diabetes medication commercial.)”

What are you working on next?

“I’ve got a work-in-progress show of the book, I Laughed, I Cried, at the Funny Women Pop-Up Fringe in Edinburgh on August 18 and 19. I still haven’t worked out if there’s a way of talking about stand-up in the context of a comedy show. I guess I’ll find out on those two nights. We’re also taking Upstairs Downton: The Improvised Episode to The Hive at Edinburgh with Heroes of the Free Fringe. It’s a Downton Abbey spoof in full period costume. All the people in it are amazing and come up with the most extraordinary things. It’s going to be the most fun. In the autumn I’ve got more shows based on the book across the UK. And there’s the small matter of about 180 events to put together for the Independent Bath Literature Festival 2014. I’d better get in some extra Diet Coke.”

I laughed I cried cover Viv Groskop’s book I Laughed, I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life is out now published by Orion. You can follow Viv on Twitter, Facebook or visit her website. You can book tickets to see I Laughed, I Cried in Edinburgh 18 and 19 August: 10.40pm or to see Upstairs Downton in Edinburgh, 1-25 August, 5pm at The Hive, click here

 

Graphic Novelist Glyn Dillon: Access All Areas

Catching The Comet'sTailThis week’s Catching the Comet’s Tail features graphic novelist Glyn Dillon. His book, The Nao of Brown, tells the darkly beautiful story of Nao, a half-Japanese woman who falls in love with a washing machine repairman. Dillon’s illustrations are stylistically diverse and sublimely coloured, making Nao one of the most exquisite tomes I have on my bookshelf. Earlier this year, Glyn was awarded the Prix Spécial du Jury at this year’s comic book equivalent of the Oscars, the Angoulême International Festival Of Bande Dessinée. I was curious to discover whether Glyn’s creative process differs whether he is writing or drawing. Here’s what he had to say…

Glynn DillonGlyn on creativity and the creative process.

“Is creativity within me? Hmm… I’d say there’s something somewhere, I don’t know where, like there’s an ‘ideasphere’ and that’s where all the good stuff is. When you’re tuned in to that, things just  flow, both with writing and drawing. So it’s a case of trying to get an ‘Access All Areas’ pass for that. But really that’s only the half of it, because there’s also a lot of cliched crap. I’m the ‘ideasphere’, so once I’ve got whatever it is I want down on paper, I need the editor part of my brain to come in and sort it all out to re-write or re-draw it. Being truly productive for me, is when I’m able to get those two very different ways of working to dance together in time.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child?

“Absolutely. My dad and brother are artists and my mum and sister are both very creative too. My brother was probably the biggest influence though. He was already drawing comics professionally having started aged 16. When I was 17, I met and became friends with Jamie Hewlett (creator of Tank Girl & Gorillaz) who inspired and influenced me in other ways, especially in his work ethic.”

How long did it take to put together The Nao of Brown? Can you recall the first spark of inspiration and is the finished work what you originally envisioned?

“The original idea for The Nao of Brown was sparked by my eldest boy. When he was about 18months old, he was scared of our washing machine – not when it was on and whizzing round – but when the door was open. He was scared of that dark hole. That led to the inspiration for Gregory, the washing machine repairman, and in his story, Nao was going to be his  love interest.  At the time I was learning to meditate, which also coincided with me learning my wife had suffered with OCD as a child and into her late teens. All these things combined over a weird three day period and the major elements of the story fell into place. Nao upgraded herself to being the main protagonist after it became obvious that she should have OCD. I wanted to learn as much as possible about the condition and this seemed as good a way as any.

Those early ideas were bubbling up around 2008 and I finished the book in May 2012. I had to take on storyboarding jobs as well so I wasn’t able to work on Nao full-time until the last seven months when I worked seven days a week, 9.00am to 3.00am, which was pretty tough going.

How did you know the book was finished?

“Well, I guess when I was high on drugs, in hospital because of my back, but was still going over the wet proofs for the dust jacket… even after  I was discharged, I was still being picky about things when I got home. I guess I found it difficult to let go. But I suppose I knew it was really finished when my publisher handed me a fresh copy out of a box that was full of them. That was a great feeling.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity and what, if anything, is guaranteed to kill it?

“Travelling is always good for inspiration because suddenly all the usual things, the everyday, commonplace things are a little different (or very different depending on where you are).  I find this visually exciting and inspiring, the senses feel that bit more heightened. Also, architecture inspires me – having a new sense of place sparks my imagination.

In terms of writing, I find solitude a necessity. Ideas are elusive, slippery things; you have to listen out for them carefully so you can’t afford to have any other voices in the room. With drawing however, it’s not always the same. Once the layouts have been thumbnailed, it’s possible to listen to the radio or music with lyrics and work at the same time.

I have to be able to create a safe bubble. If outside worries or stresses intrude, it can become impossible to work and those things will need sorting before I can carry on.”

Do you ever feel that creating new things is a chore? What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?

“If I’m creating new things for myself, whether it be a book or a sandcastle with the kids, then no. However, if I’m working on a film and I don’t quite have that ‘taste alignment’ with the director, then yes, sometimes it can feel like a chore and I become fully aware of my ‘gun for hire’ position. I sometimes have to look hard for something in a bad idea that can hold my interest for the duration. But some twisted part of me enjoys that challenge.

I’m not a real believer in writer’s or artist’s block. In my experience, if you’re having a bad day where nothing is flowing, you just have to keep working, even if you know it’s shit. Eventually you’ll turn a corner and it’s all the more satisfying knowing that you’ve worked your way through it. Maybe what people are talking about when they say ‘writer’s block’ is either fear, or even depression – but that’s obviously a different thing entirely.”

Is there a collaborative element to your work? 

“Storyboarding film and commercials have paid the mortgage over the last seventeen years, and that’s quite a collaborative process. What I enjoy most about it is that my job isn’t the end product, it’s just part of the process. Once used, it’s disposable; only a handful of people get to see it. This is a very good exercise for the artist’s ego. It freed me up a lot, so when I came back to comics, to doing Nao, I think I was much freer than I had been in the past with regards to my work.”

Please talk a bit about the environment you like to be in to write. 

Glynn Dillon's Desk

Glynn’s ‘messy’ desk

“We’d just had our attic converted when I started on Nao, so that became my workspace. When writing, I shifted my days around so that I was working through the night and sleeping in the day. I wrote the whole book before I started drawing. I wrote it in a film script format, with no page breaks, and went through six drafts before I felt I could start thumbnailing. It took three months of nights to get through those six drafts. I saw more of the kids during the week because I would wake up around 4pm and not start work until they’d gone to bed. This was great, except weekends were hard on my wife because I was sleeping in the day. I consider myself very lucky in that department; my wife and family were completely understanding and supportive of me. I know it wasn’t always easy on them, so I’m very grateful. So, getting back to the question, my ‘environment’ was, and is, my family. And when that relationship is good and supportive, it makes the work so much easier.

When writing I only listen to wordless things – lots of soundtracks or foreign language stuff – 60s Bollywood soundtracks are a particular favourite. In the early stages of note taking and gathering ideas for Nao, I  listened to a lot of music that I thought Nao would like. A lot of this was stuff I wouldn’t listen to myself, but it really helped with the building of her character.”

Did you have a daily routine when you were writing/drawing Nao

“After the writing stage of Nao was over, I returned to daytimes and stuck quite rigidly to working 9.30-6.30, six days a week, and then sometimes I’d work in the evenings as well. I always tried to get out of the house to eat lunch and read the paper. Otherwise those four walls would quickly become oppressive. Luckily, my ‘commute’ was only upstairs so if I felt the need to see some smiling little faces, it wasn’t far to go.

I’m definitely more of a night person, always have been, but having small children isn’t conducive to that lifestyle. Once they’re teenagers I’m sure I’ll edge back more towards what feels like my natural state.”

Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process and tell us about it. 

Daruma Netsuke

“This is something my wife gave me and I can still remember the shock felt by both me and my eldest son when I first opened it. I tipped it slightly and his eyes popped out!  It made us both really jump. It’s a Daruma Netsuke [miniature Japanese sculpture] and Daruma is a direct inspiration for Gregory [the washing machine repairman in Nao].”

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master or have you mastered another that we don’t know about yet?

“It would be nice to play a musical instrument but I never seem to find the time. And I’ve always fancied the idea of a bit of topiary in my retirement years (if they ever come).”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity?

“I think it’s safe to say it made me work harder. I was nervous because our second son was due at the same time I was due to start on the book. I had no idea how that was gonna work out. The saying that goes, “It’s never the right time to have a child,” could just as easily apply to writing a book. You just have to get on with it and deal with things as they come up.”

Please say as much or as little as you’d like about your next creative project.

“At the moment I’m working on a film, as a concept artist in the costume dept. I’m also at the fun stage of a new book project. Trying to remain alert and aware of everything going on around me that might become a part of the book. So far I have a setting, a protagonist, a theme. I think I’m going to try a more improvisational approach with this one, I just need to get hold of that ‘Access All Areas’ pass.”

Nao of Brown Glynn Dillon Glyn’s graphic novel The Nao of Brown is available now, published by Self Made Hero.  Follow Glyn on Twitter or find out more from his website www.naobrown.com.

Next week’s Catching the Comet’s Tail features musician KT Tunstall talking about her creative process.

Author Ben Hatch: Cheese, Marriage and Qwerty Keyboards

CatchingTheCometsTailI’m delighted to welcome author Ben Hatch to Catching the Comet’s Tail.  Ben is a master of the kind of acute observation of family life that has you pondering the deeper significance of  the type of breakfast cereal your spouse prefers. His last book, Are We Nearly There Yet? about a family trip around Britain in a Vauxhall Astra, was wonderfully funny and incredibly poignant. The sequel, The Road to Rouen,  takes us on another Hatch family trip, this time around France. Along the way, Ben’s marriage, life and love of fromage are put in equal jeopardy. I think of him as a kind John Cleese/Gerald Durrell hybrid, only featuring cars and condiments instead of animals. If you haven’t put him on your summer reading list, do!

Author Ben HatchBen Hatch on creativity…

“My creative process simply involves sitting cross-legged on the cheese-stained swivel chair in my study for long enough to write something that’s not so dreadful the next day when I come to read it back I have the will power to try and build on it. As unromantic as it sounds, it’s a bit like bashing the end of a near empty bottle of ketchup, the ketchup bottle being my head, the ketchup itself is the words and the plate’s the screen. Hopefully (and I might be stretching this ketchup analogy way too far now) amongst the unusable, thin, red spray of relish they’ll be one salvageable dollop worth dipping a chip in.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early literary influences?

“The only way I can talk about creativity in my childhood is through an analogy using Coleman’s Mustard. That’s a lie. I was pretending after the ketchup thing to be obsessed with different relishes. I’m not obsessed by different relishes. My father was in the Cambridge Footlights and a contemporary of The Goodies and half of what would become the Monty Python team but creativity wasn’t actively encouraged in our house. The ability to play sport was however, although unfortunately I was so ungainly I couldn’t work the swing in our back garden until I was about 9 and I am still unable to do a forward roll. My grandmother on my dad’s side and my mum’s sister were both excellent painters as is my sister. I desperately wanted to take after them and I remember the day I showed my dad a picture of the life-cycle of the butterfly I’d completed in 2b pencil. I’d drawn a chrysalis, a caterpillar and a cabbage white butterfly in such extraordinary detail it was attached to the fridge by my mum. Just as it was starting to be acknowledged I’d inherited my family’s artistic streak I was caught tracing a hippopotamus through greaseproof paper and exposed as a fraud. My only creative trigger has been the need to impress my father. I remember the first time I made him laugh. We were on a family holiday eating out. The joke I made was about how my sister had eaten such a lot of crab she’d probably walk out of the restaurant sideways. It’s not that funny but I was 12 and my dad was Head of Light Entertainment at BBC Radio and he seemed thrilled by the idea of “Benjy’s first joke”. From then on all I ever wanted to do was make my dad laugh. I wrote derivative Monty Python comedy sketches for a while then I tried to become an comic actor but I was hopelessly wooden. I fixed on writing books after I fell in love with Catcher in the Rye. Before I’d read this I had no idea books were capable of being funny and moving at the same time. Minus a brief period when I wanted to be a professional snooker player and became obsessed with Tony Meo that I don’t want to go into, that’s all I ever wanted to be.”

How long did it take to write The Road to Rouen and can you recall the first spark of inspiration?

“The Road to Rouen took about five months to write. The inspiration came from the tight deadline. To finish the book I had to get up at 4am every day including weekends for several months. The book is not at all as I imagined it would be. While it’s mainly light-hearted in tone I somehow ended up dissecting my marriage too which I put in jeopardy on the trip by doing some very silly things one of which included almost being gored and another saw me almost get murdered. I know rewriting a book is finished when I start taking sections out and then reinstating them before removing the day after. At that point you’re fiddling and it’s time to let it go.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity, no matter what and what, if anything, is guaranteed to kill it?

“I’m not aware of ever feeling inspired although some days it’s easier to write well than others. But that can often be misleading. Often when I think I’ve written something particularly good, I read it back and realise it’s rubbish but then it works the other way too. That’s why I never throw anything away. My computer is filled with abandoned chapters and scenes that one day I’m hoping to revisit and find some merit in. Seeing and experiencing new things obviously helps the creative process, especially if it’s a situation I feel uncomfortable in. In fact there’s a constant and very annoying tension in my life between avoiding things I don’t want to do because they scare me and the realisation that if I do them it’ll make good material. In an ideal world I’d get inspiration from being sat on the sofa watching telly with a bag of mixed nuts and raisons and a glass of wine by my side but that’s not the way it works unfortunately.”

Do you ever feel that creating new things is a chore and what do you do when you feel blocked creatively?

“I’d much rather be rewriting than writing something new. It’s not a chore in the same way working on an Icelandic trawler at 3am reeling in a herring net is a chore, but it’s the hardest part of the job. That’s because you know 90 per cent of what you’re writing won’t survive in the final draft. There can’t be many jobs that are this unproductive. If you worked in any other profession, say as a doctor or teacher, and wasted 90 per cent of your time you’d be fired. In terms of writer’s block, I don’t believe in it. I know this because I once spent seven years writing the same book. That happened because I decided I wanted the novel out of contract. A terrible mistake. A writer with writer’s block is a writer in need of a deadline.”

Please talk a bit about the environment you like to be in to write. 

Ben Hatch Creative Space

“As long as I have a qwerty keyboard I don’t mind where I work although I like to be near a kettle, a toaster and a sizeable lump of cheese to gnaw on like a rat. I like to play music in the background and I often loop a particular song. I can play the same track 456 times over without getting in the slightest bit bored of it. However, I work alongside my wife (about 20cm from her in fact. She’s a freelance travel journalist and we share a study) and this tends to drive her crazy so on the whole I work in silence apart from every now and again like just now when she leant over and showed me a picture of a Victorian tap online that she thought we should have in the bathroom because there was a picture of a similar one in the Sunday Times style section at the weekend.”

Do you have a daily routine when you are writing? 

“I like to start early before my kids wake up, before anyone is on twitter or emailing and also so I can act like a weary martyr in the evening when my wife asks me to do something trivial such get up and put the latest Friday Night Lights disc in the DVD player. “Can you? (pained face) I did get up at 5am.” I don’t have a set word count like most authors. Instead I give myself a time limit to complete a chapter.”

Is there a collaborative element to your work? 

“I’ve always wanted to work collaboratively. It’s the way they put together American sitcoms and often I’ve pictured myself firing off ideas sat around a table with other writers but in reality the chances are I’d probably not contribute anything under this system because I’d be too shy or diffident and instead I’d merely laugh at everyone else’s stuff feeling disgruntled and intimidated. I don’t like to show anyone anything until right at the end. In the past I’ve shown my wife something too early and it’s always counter productive because if she dislikes it, it’s disheartening and if she likes it, it’s always the bit that you later feel has to be cut but now as she liked it, you’re resistant to this idea, and the whole process slows down.”

Please share a photo of an object that connects with your creative process.

Ben Hatch Lucky Heather“I have two things I keep connected to my work. One is this piece of heather. (Left) I bought it from a gypsy woman in Ben Hatch's Letter Leicester Square for £1 just hoping for luck just before I went into the Curtis Brown literary agency in 1997. The second is this letter my dad wrote to me when I started living back home after university and had been fired from 8 jobs in as many months where he pretty much calls me an oaf.” (Right)

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master?

“I’d love to be the sort of person who could sit on a pretty hill in a loose fitting shirt with unbuttoned cuffs and paint a typical English landscape below me in oils maybe in a soft flat hat with a picnic hamper of sandwiches for lunch in a small knapsack between my feet. That would be immensely relaxing, I imagine. I’d also like to be able to play the piano. I took lessons when my daughter started aged 6 but within weeks she was better than me and I lost heart and quit when she criticised my scales.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity? 

“What’s the Cyril Connolly quote: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” I believed that for many years and it almost stopped me having kids. Then when I had them I discovered it was bollocks. If anything becoming a father helped instil some discipline into my life and writing. Like how football manager’s always want their players to get married and settle down because they focus more on their game, it was the same with me. Every hour spent working has a premium when you have young kids because it’s time you could be spending with them watching Underground Ernie or making a den out of sofa cushions and travel rugs. It means you have to make your hours at the keyboard count and try your best to get off Twitter and websites where there are admittedly quite humorous objects that look like Hitler.”

Please say as much or as little as you’d like about your next book and the stage you are at with it.

“The Road to Rouen, the sequel to Are We Nearly There Yet? has just been published by Headline. It’s about a 10,000 mile drive around France that I completed with my family. I was researching a guidebook. I thought the greatest danger would be the boredom of spending so long in the car although at various points we’re attacked by a donkey, there’s a run-in with a death-cult, a calamitous wedding experience involving a British spy before I almost end up starring in a snuff movie after a near fatal decision to climb into a millionaire’s Chevrolet Blazer. Although actually the book is really about marriage and the up and downs that everyone experiences along this journey. I’m also currently working on a sitcom treatment of my first novel The Lawnmower Celebrity for the BBC as well as researching my next travelogue which will be a road-trip round Italy. I also have a theory about curing the common cold. Seriously. I’m on to something. It involves sneezing, that’s all I’ll say. Watch this space.”

Road to RouenYou can follow @BenHatch on Twitter and his Facebook page is here, although it is, by his own admission, “Fairly rubbish.”

Road to Rouen is published on May 23rd by Headline books. You can order it here.

 

 

Author Matt Haig: Loving the Alien

CatchingTheCometsTailThis week, Catching the Comet’s Tail features author Matt Haig. I like to imagine that if, by some time-bending miracle, Rene Descartes could meet David Bowie at a space cafe where the only thing on the menu is peanut butter served on slices of philosophical bread, Matt would be there taking notes. Haig’s latest novel, The Humans, is a simple yet moving story that will have you weeping at the beauty and futility of it all. Welcome to the world of an author who puts the ‘sigh’ in sci-fi.

Matt Haig

Matt Haig photo by Clive Doyle

Matt on creativity…

“I think writing sometimes comes from intense experiences. You are not necessarily writing about those experiences but it helps me that I have had them. I think the body and the mind are very closely linked. When I used to have panic attacks, it was my heart and my mind going crazy together. You feel things and experience things and somehow these experiences turn into stories. It is a mystery. If you write non-fiction then you write with a clear knowledge of where your words stem from, but with fiction you are generally asking questions, not giving answers.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early literary influences?

“I was quite bookish but didn’t go to a school where being bookish was a good thing, so I often used to hide the fact from my friends. I loved all the usuals – Dahl, Jansson, SE Hinton…then, as a teen, Stephen King in a major way. But I think a lot of the writer sensibility comes from staring out of windows. I used to do that a lot, wrapped up in the comfort of my own imagination. My parents also took me to the theatre a lot and our house was a house of books.”

How long did it take to write The Humans and can you recall the first spark of inspiration?

“The Humans took me over a decade, technically, because I first had the idea for it in 2000 when I was suffering from panic disorder, and feeling alienated from the rest of my species. However, I was scared of writing it as a first novel for 2 reasons – firstly, I didn’t want to be labelled as a sci-fi writer, which technically this story is (in subject if not in spirit), and secondly, even though it was a fantasy, the story felt strangely personal, and it took a while to get the degree of honesty necessary. I needed to look at myself properly, and when you are 25 and trying to be cool that’s hard. The concept changed through the editing process. I am deeply proud of this book and don’t mind shouting about it from the rooftops. I think it is by far the best thing I have ever done, but it only got that way with the help of my editor at Canongate, Francis Bickmore. You see, the first draft would have literally alienated most readers. He told me to think of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and feed the weirdness in gradually and that is what I tried to do. And you know [a book] is finished when you have exhausted your editor and he says it is finished.”

Who, what or where always inspires your creativity, no matter what? And what, if anything, is guaranteed to kill it?

“I can only work at home. Preferably in my attic. But I can have music on or even the TV. I have tinnitus, so quiet is more distracting than noise. Twitter is a creativity-killer though.”

 What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?

“Go for a run. Or, if in a serious slump, get away on holiday.”

Please share a photo of something that connects with your writing process.

Matt Haig's Peanut Butter

Every writer needs it…peanut butter.

“My writing staple… peanut butter.”

Is there a collaborative element to your work? 

“Well, I have a great editor. And my wife is a writer, so I show her stuff and she tells me what she likes and what she doesn’t. But I am a shut-myself-away kind of writer to be honest.”

Where do you most like to be when you write, and do you have a daily routine? 

Matt Haig Writing

Matt’s favourite writing place.

“I hate writing at a desk so I can normally be found lounging around my house. This is my favourite spot.

I work three times as well in the morning as the afternoon. For every sentence I write in the afernoon, I can write a paragraph in the morning. So my rule is: START EARLY, FINISH EARLY.”

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master?

“I’d like to be a film director. My Dad is an architect. I’d love to design a building.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity?

“You have less time, so you become more productive. You use the time you have more wisely. You become more disciplined. I also think I have a more optimistic world-view. My style has become a little bit sunnier I think.”

What are you working on next?

“I have been asked to write a screenplay for The Humans. So, that!”

The Humans Matt HaigYou can find out more about Matt on his blog, or find him on Twitter and Facebook. His novel The Humans is out now from Canongate  Books.

Elizabeth Fremantle: Tea, Toast and Not Losing Your Head

CatchingTheCometFinalWelcome to Catching the Comet’s Tail, a series of interviews with writers, artists and musicians discussing creativity and their creative process. To launch the series, I am delighted to welcome English author Elizabeth Fremantle. Her first novel, Queen’s Gambit, based on the life of Henry VIII’s sixth wife Katherine Parr,  had me gripped from the first page until the last. I happen to know that, not only is she a gifted writer, she is also a demon at Scrabble. 

Elizabeth on defining creativity and the creative process…

Elizabeth Fremantle

Author Elizabeth Fremantle

“I am pragmatic about creativity. I am not of the view, for example, that I am the catalyst for some mysterious alchemical process. For me writing (and I’m talking here about the production of extended pieces of fiction) is more craft than art; it is something you teach yourself to do and it improves with practice. Certainly there are character traits that suggest a propensity for the craft, all rather dull, I’m afraid: discipline, a desire for solitude, swottiness and the ability to consume vast quantities of tea and toast, because when you are on a roll the last thing you want to do is come over all Nigella. No amount of talent can compensate for hard work but it is true that some people have an extra something that just makes them better than everyone else (not me, I might add) but even those people have to work hard. If I have a muse at all, it is the accumulated knowledge from all the books I have ever read and resides in an unwieldy and unreliably accessed conglomeration in my head.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early inspirations?

“In my family ‘creative’ was what you were when you were not ‘academic’ and it meant that your education didn’t really matter; I was not considered ‘academic’. Reading was my refuge from an eccentric family and an effective mask for my social inadequacy. I read anything I could get my hands on from Jean Plaidy to Somerset Maugham, via Gerald Durrell and Agatha Christie. Often when I finished books I would start them all over again immediately. The only thing I ever wanted to become was a writer because I saw it as a way to create worlds for people to inhabit, who felt they didn’t fit in the actual world; but not being ‘academic’ made me believe it would never be possible. In my thirties I thought ‘sod it,’ and went to university. It turned out I was ‘academic’!”

How long did it take to write Queen’s Gambit and can you recall the first spark of inspiration? 

“I had written a number of novels, none of which had found a publisher and was beginning to think that perhaps I didn’t have what it takes to be a novelist. I was writing intense, writerly stories about young, messed-up posh girls, despite knowing that there was no market for such things. It was a colleague, a literary scout for whom I worked, who suggested I think about who I was writing for. It occurred to me only then to think of writing the kind of books I have always most enjoyed reading rather than the kind I thought I ought to write. I was intrigued by Katherine Parr because she was the wife everyone thought was rather dull and yet she was the one who survived. The more I researched her the more I realized that she had been miscast by history and I felt compelled to explore her story in fiction. Once I started, I was on a mission; it took me about eighteen months and I did really create the book I set out to write, which is actually more difficult than it sounds. I don’t know if you ever know that a novel is finished; in my case I simply have to decide that I must stop tinkering. There is not a passage I read in the ‘finished’ book that I don’t still want to change.”

Who, what or where always inspires you?

“My inspiration is most usually derived from reading but sometimes I will wander round an old building or look at a view or a portrait and the ideas begin to pop into my head. For example I was at a wedding the other day in Richmond Park and, driving through the deer park to get there, my mind started firing off. Once we were there I was mesmerized by the view from the back of the building, a landscape blurred by rain that I imagined had changed little in five hundred years. It is at moments like that when my characters begin to make themselves heard. Sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn’t, there is no rhyme or reason to it.

I don’t believe in writers’ block. I have good days and bad but it’s just a job and the world would come to a halt if everyone else decided that they couldn’t do their job because they weren’t ‘feeling it’. I did say I was a pragmatist.

I write completely alone. It works better for me that way. I do, however belong to a writer’s group, the function of which is more moral than editorial support. It is necessarily a solitary business being a novelist, and sometimes it’s helpful to know people who are striving for similar ends. When you start banging on about your characters as if they are actually people in your life, they are less likely than your regular friends to glaze over, or think you’ve lost your marbles. I never, ever show my work to friends or family until it is ready for publication (which seems to annoy lots of people) but I have one or two trusted editors who give me notes on earlier drafts.”

Elizabeth's writing desk

Elizabeth’s writing desk

Where do you most like to be when you write and do you have a routine?

“I definitely work best at my desk with all my reference books around me and an internet connection to fact-check as I go along. I like silence and my dogs sleeping at my feet. I’m not very good at being portable. Comfort and warmth are key and the best thing about being a writer is that you can go to work in your pyjamas. I often think people are disappointed when they meet me because I used to be a Vogue fashion editor and I am never wearing the kind of thing they expect – its always a version of pyjamas really.

I’m absolutely a morning person but can, and do, work in any moment when the desire arises. I have been known to sit at my desk after a night out, having had one two many glasses of wine, and start thumping away at the keyboard – see above mention of wedding in Richmond – sometimes this produces diamonds but often drivel. When I am writing a new draft of something my rule is to write a minimum of 1,000 words a day. I am very strict about this and it suits me perfectly. I rarely sacrifice other things to write as there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”

Please share a special object that connects with your writing.

“I bought this miniature (see picture below) to celebrate my first publishing deal and though I don’t invest it with any kind of talismanic powers, it does remind me of the joy I felt when I knew I was going to be earning my living doing the thing I love best. It is a Victorian copy of a Nicholas (who is in my next book) Hilliard original of Mary Queen of Scots by George Perfect Harding.”

Victorian copy of a Nicholas Hilliard original of Mary Queen of Scots by George Perfect Harding.

Victorian copy of a Nicholas Hilliard original of Mary Queen of Scots by George Perfect Harding.

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master?

“I’m hopeless at everything else though I did make a couple of rather good human beings once.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity?

“I really have absolutely no idea, though being a single mother has made me very time efficient.”

What are you working on next?

“Queen’s Gambit is the first of a Tudor trilogy. The second book takes place a few years later in time and though I don’t revisit any of my protagonist’s stories, there are a few minor characters who reappear. Queen Jane’s Shadow (out in May 2014) tells of the two younger sisters of the tragically executed Lady Jane Grey, one of whom, Lady Mary is a four foot hunchback. In the period physical deformity was regarded with great suspicion and often linked to the demonic in people’s minds, so Mary’s perspective on the court is coloured by this. Lady Catherine is the capricious beauty of the family and in love with the idea of love, something that eventually becomes her downfall. I intertwine their stories with that of a female court painter, Levina Teerlinc, who was remarkable in that she was earning her living from her work in a time when women rarely set foot beyond the domestic arena. It is all set against the backdrop of the turbulent and bloody Tudor succession.

The third novel, which I am working on now, focuses on the life of the ‘decadent’ Penelope Devereaux who scandalised the late Elizabethan court.”

You can find out more about Elizabeth on her website www.elizabethfremantle.com Twitter @LizFremantle Facebook Elizabeth Fremantle.

QGcoverQueen’s Gambit is available now in hardback, published by Michael Joseph.

Next week’s Catching the Comet’s Tail features Swedish contemporary artist Ylva Kunze talking creativity, kids and paintbrushes. Please follow #ctct on Twitter.

How to Get Your Kids into Poetry: Granny is a Vintage Cheese

I’ve been a lifelong fan of poetry. My love of it was instilled in me by my dad who called it ‘poultry’ and for years, I thought the written word was closely linked to chickens.

When he wasn’t reading poetry aloud in a wildly theatrical voice, my dad would be listening to it and crying.  33rpm vinyl Dylan Thomas crackled into my childhood dreams as he played the records at midnight.

My father left behind reams of his own poems, written in his spidery handwriting, the wiry, right-leaning slant of which I inherited. It is because of him that I love words, and it’s something I wanted to pass on to my own children.

This is a great game to play with your kids as soon as they have developed any kind level of symbolic imagination. I call this game, Granny is a Vintage Cheese. I find it works best from about age 6 plus, but it depends on your child.

Here is what you do to play Granny is a Vintage Cheese

  • Grab a pen and paper.
  • Ask your child to think of a person they know and keep them in mind. Get a photo out if it helps.
  • Then ask your child what colour that person makes them think of .
  • What kind of weather would the person be?
  • What kind of road, fruit, sound, flower, music, country, smell, sky, animal, temperature would they be? What kind of journey, what texture?
  • Write everything down.
  • Ask any questions that inspire your child to think symbolically.

You will end up with a list something like this ~ The Biscuit Thief aged 6 describing one of her friends:

Yellow, Strawberries, Bells, Scotland, Sunny day, A muddy path through a field, Chilly, A cup of tea.

Then, you put the images into some kind of shape like this:

MUDDY FIELDS

I loved that sunny day in Scotland,

When the yellow light helped the wild strawberries grow.

We ate them until our cups of tea,

turned chilly in the wind.

We walked home;

a muddy path through the fields,

to the sound of distant bells.

Voila! You have a poem by a 6-year-old (with a little help).

Give the poem title by picking one of the images, or just using the person’s name. Obviously, the more images you get out of your little one, the richer the symbols in the final poem will be.

The poems make great presents by the way! (Unless the all the associations seem to be about poo, wee, and plop.) Just print them off or get your child to write them out and then frame them.

Here’s another one, based on the images the Biscuit Thief associates with me:

MUMMY, by the Biscuit Thief, aged 6.

I ate old bananas,

In the heavy rain storm.

The pig smelled of roses

and an old rusty car that had broken down

In Guernsey.

Thanks Biscuit. Please add yours in the comments…I would love to see them!

In Andalucia

Spanish bullBy the time you read this, I will be floating on a lilo in a pool. I will have a blank, can’t be arsed facial expression, like someone whose OD’ed on Botox, been slapped by a fish, and then had a shock.  I will be roasting like a piggy on a spit, slowly browning like the meat gyro up the kebab shop on the Harrow Road. I will occasionally look up from my paperback, its spine melting and pages wrinkling in the heat, and utter the words, “more figs please” to whoever will listen. I will have a sweaty lip ‘tache and clammy nethers, but this is not the point. The point is, I’ll be in Andalucia, Southern Spain, one of my favourite places in the world. Land of the poet I love the most, Federico Garcia Lorca, and, more importantly, home (via La Mancha) of the best cheese ever, Manchego. It’s from SHEEP!

I’ve always had a bit of a ‘thing’ about Spain; it’s been a long-term crush. In my late twenties, I took myself off to University having originally bypassed the whole degree thing, choosing instead to pursue a rock n’ roll life on the road armed with my acoustic guitar and a handful of songs about being dumped. Ultimately, my rock n’ roll years were actually spent in the back of a transit van that smelled of vomit and boys. Disillusioned and practically brain-dead after saying, “Check…1… 2…check 1…2..” for the 35,000th time, I decided to go to back to school and exercise my brain.

My chosen course was a BA in Humanities with Hispanic Studies. Over the four years of my degree, I was immersed in all things Spanish and South American in terms of literature, art, music and language. I spent some time in Madrid. I conjugated a lot of verbs. And I sussed out the many things that pull me in about Spain.

For a start, I love the language. It is BRILLIANT because there is something that I call the verb of diminished responsibility. In Spanish, it is perfectly legitimate grammatically to say, “The car crashed itself” or, “The table broke itself” or, “The wee, peed itself all over the floor mummy”. You can blame inanimate things for human weakness linguistically! Genius!

The hair. Gotta love Spanish hair. It’s everywhere! The men are all, “Ooh, you may look admiringly at my Erik Estrada ‘tache and rest your head on my wiry chest forest while I read you something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a schmexy voice.” Yes, I like it.

And the women! Those long, black, shiny tresses. Sigh. As the owner of some flaky, brittle, blonde fluff up top, I am so envious of that long, black, shiny hair.

And I love the whole flamenco thing. Yes, it may be a cliche, but stomping around on the earth and shouting is EXACTLY my kind of medicine. I ended up doing my thesis on the Spanish concept of duende which is this intangible thing that happens in flamenco; a cross between frenzy, enlightenment, excitement and an existential moment of realisation about death, sex, love, pain and the futility of human experience. As far as I can work out, most women experience a moment of duende in childbirth at some point, and will tell anyone who can hear it exactly where they can stick their duende, but I didn’t know that when I was in my twenties studying it.

I like the way flamenco as a dance form is directed at the earth. None of this pointy uppy toward the sky stuff or being contorted into a masculine shape like in ballet. Flamenco dancers usually have busts, waists and curves, and that’s just the men! Some of the best female flamenco dancers are bloody ANCIENT and have all the grace and power of fire. They strop around with a pained facial expression like I do at parent’s evening.

And the time signatures in flamenco music, wow. None of your standard 4/4 stuff here. No, time signatures are in things like 78/3, 196/4.8. They make prog rock bands sound like kids with a Casio drum machine when the batteries are wearing down! OOh and the cajon. That big, booming box that is used to beat out the rhythm. That’s what I like. I nice, big, phat cajon being slapped by a hairy man in 78/5  time on a hot, steamy night. I also like the way flamenco embraces musical notes that aren’t generally considered part of the standard music scale. They use quarter-notes, eighths, wibbly-wobbly-in-between stuff that only Andalucian dogs can hear. What’s not to love I ask you?

The wild poppies and the stars. In rural Spain you still get incredible starscapes at night as there is little street lighting. By day in the spring, the wild poppies mirror Orion, Perseus and Cassiopeia on the scorched earth. It’s heavenly.

Everyone has their ‘other’ land do they not? The place where we sketch out a fantasy other life, places that speak to parts of our soul that lie dormant at home. Spain speaks to my wild places; I am barefoot all the time, I eat with my fingers and swim in the moonlight, shedding pounds of London grey and lard.

Where does your heart sing that is not called home?