Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Interview with Jane Riddell

        My guest today is Jane Riddell

Jane is an Edinburgh-based writer, editor and photographer. Her work includes short stories, life writing and contemporary novels, which she qualifies as "quiet fiction". In addition to writing and blogging, Jane runs an editing agency, Choice Words Editing.

Her recently published debut novel is Water's Edge, a contemporary drama about a family reunion which doesn’t go as planned.  Madalena invites her four adult children to Switzerland to help her celebrate her hotel’s 40th anniversary, not knowing that there are secrets and tensions amongst them.  What is meant to be a happy occasion turns out to be a stormy one.

 1-     Jane, could you define quiet fiction?

I’d never heard of  ‘quiet fiction’ until a tutor suggested my writing fitted this description.  If you ‘google’ the term, you don’t really find anything.  Realistic fiction, on the other hand, is more widely-used and is defined as a story about real people experiencing situations that could really happen.  I have concluded that the two terms have similar meanings.

2 - Why did you choose overseas locations for your novels?

I love to travel, and choosing other countries as a setting allows me to spend an afternoon in the mountains and lakes of Switzerland, or the beach and hillside villages of southern France, when those around me are enduring yet another wet, blustery Edinburgh afternoon.  The location for Water’s Edge, I think, was inspired by Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.   After finishing another novel, I decided that lakes and mountains would be my next setting.  Shortly after I spent several days in Brunnen, on Lake Luzern in Switzerland, and  - more slowly than I would have expected  - realised this was the idea setting for Water’s Edge.  I began writing the novel immediately.
3 - When and why did you start writing seriously?

I had been writing as a hobby for many years, but was never caught up enough in it to work on something for more than a couple of hours at a time.  During most of these years I had a paid job. When we decided to move to France, things changed.  I was unlikely to be able to work there because of my limited French, and reckoned that I would probably spend more time writing.  Several months before we left Edinburgh, during a Saturday afternoon at the gym, I found myself on the treadmill, listening to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas singing Dancing in the Street, and thinking:  I’ll have a go at becoming a serious writer. Perhaps I was inspired by the music that afternoon, perhaps the desire to make writing more important simply crept up on me.  Maybe I felt that the newness of another country would make my writing more pivotal to my existence.

When we arrived in France, I discovered I could write for longer chunks of time, and became quite productive in terms of finishing pieces of work, rewriting short stories and starting work on a new novel.

4 - What do you think are the basic ingredients of a story?

A believable plot, realistic characters, a well-described setting and good dialogue.  For me, too, how the story is told greatly affects my pleasure in it: not too much explanation, the right balance of action, reflection and dialogue, leaving the reader space to draw their own conclusions.

5 - What are your writing strengths and weaknesses?

Feedback suggests I have the ability to describe a setting in a way that pulls readers in.  I have never thought I could do that, not compared to other authors, for example, Anita Shreve, whose descriptions of severe winters on the east coast of the US are wonderful.  I think dialogue is one of my strengths.  I’ve read copious technical books about writing and always been particularly interested in sections about dialogue.  When I did my Masters in Creative Writing, I learned about the use of subtext as a way of adding richness and tension to conversations.  Although I haven’t quite got to grips with this technique yet, I do try to deploy it in my writing.

As for weaknesses - I don’t have particularly good imagination, and I find endings difficult.  It’s so tempting to tie everything up neatly but that’s just too convenient and not realistic.  I also have to work hard at not rushing through a scene, giving the reader time to absorb it, and not to include too much banal domestic detail.  I’m sure there other areas worthy of improvement, but these are the ones that immediately spring to mind.

6 - What elements do you consider essential for a character to be believable?

Not too perfect, not too villainous.  I think there has to be consistency of behaviour, or at least a consistent inconsistency, if this makes sense.   It’s important, too, to convey or at least hint at depth of personality.

7 - Do you have a routine for your writing?

Definitely not.  Since living in France I’ve adapted to a mid-Atlantic time zone with afternoon mornings, and evening afternoons.  Not a good idea, on balance, but with no pressure to do so, it’s hard to change.  I tend to do some writing or promoting my work every day, but there’s little rhyme or reason to what and when this might be.  Fortunately, I have no desire to be the kind of writer who knocks out a book every year and as I rarely have deadlines imposed on me – sometimes with editing work I am given a date - I don’t completely buy the ‘routine’ bit.  That said, I met a delightful person this week, who works full time and has already completed seven books this year, and if I’m being honest, I realise that if I did have a routine, I would probably be more productive.

8 - How long does it take you to complete a novel?

It varies.  Water’s Edge took just under four years, but it underwent various drafts.  I first submitted it to agents less than a year after starting it, believing it was ready and, understandably, got nowhere.  Then when we returned from France to the UK and I started studying for my Masters, at the lecturer’s advice, I reluctantly put it aside until I’d finished the course.  When I picked it up again, I realised it required substantial revising, and this took two and half years.  My current novel, Chergui’s Child, has been on the go, off and on, for 12 years!

9 - If you could go to any part of the world to write a novel, where would you choose to go?

Nepal, perhaps, or Kashmir.  I spent a week in Nepal and it was magical.  As for the purply grey light of Srinagar - I will never forget that.  I think either of these places would be inspirational, or perhaps a tea plantation in Darjeeling.

10 - What type of reading inspires you to write?

Probably the same sort of thing that I write – quiet fiction.   Authors such as Anita Shreve, Anita Brookner, and Ian McEwan have influenced me – for their beautiful use of language, the depths of their characterisation, and their ability to describe locations.  I am not so interested in genre writing, although as I currently watch a lot of police procedurals on telly, it’s occurred to me I might enjoy reading them, and perhaps one day, trying to write one….

11 - What are you working on now?

I’m rewriting Chergui’s Child.  Like Water’s Edge, CC did the round of agents while we were living in France, and didn’t get very far.   As I still strongly believed in its storyline, I returned to it just over a year ago.  The structure of the telling has changed significantly, and I’ve been editing it for a while now.   

12 - What do you do when the going gets tough?

I’ve experienced two episodes of writer’s block so far.  The first was after I finished my Masters.  It was a difficult year academically and there was some unpleasantness.   I emerged from it bloody  - if unbowed - and a bit stuck.  This period coincided with an elderly relative having a massive stroke.  I think the combination of the Masters’ experience and the distress of my aunt’s condition resulted in a stuckness.  I would look at Water’s Edge and think:  so what?  Who cares?  What I did was spend the next five or six months blogging hard to keep my writing muscle exercised, and made notes about how to write from various ‘how to’ books.  At this time I’d begun working with a mentor, who was gently encouraging and gave me constructive feedback about my writing.   Gradually the energy returned, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I’m stuck again, this time with Chergui’s Child.  This might partly be due to having received some positive reviews of Water’s Edge and an anxiety about CC not living up to possible readers’ expectations.  Or it might be because there’s a fundamental problem I have to sort out with CC.  At the moment, therefore, I’m spending more time promoting WE  - directly and indirectly - than writing CC.  

13 - Your photos are very evocative. Do you use them to inspire your writing?

I think I do, but indirectly.  I take loads of photos when abroad and the fact that I’m so keen to display them on my author’s website, suggests that there’s a connection – certainly with my identity.  I don’t kid myself that I’m anything like a professional in my technique, but my tendency to view scenery through the eyes of a lens, is strong.  I think my photos are often in my head, i.e. I can think about them when I’m not actually viewing them.  And so they inspire me.  Certainly when living in France and surrounded by the most beautiful mountains and national parks, I wrote prolifically.

14 - How does your editing work affect your writing?

I find that mixing my own creative writing with other people’s writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, works well.  The commonalities of both are the need for precision, logical flow and eliminating unnecessary words.  When I’m struggling to connect with my own creativity, it’s a pleasure, and a relief, to be working on someone else’ s writing and not to have to be imaginative.  But when I’ve been doing this for a while, it feels positive to return to my writing.

The more I edit, the more I see the need for further editing of my own work.  If I were to look back at Water’s Edge now, about 18 months after finishing it, I’m sure I’d find scope for further revision.

Jane Riddell's website       http://www.quietfiction.com/

and her Blog                   Papillon:Inconsequential thoughts

website editing address   http://www.choicewordsediting.co.uk

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