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Interview with Askews and Holts Library Services

Describe The Beginning Woods in three words.

Read. It. Slowly.

Who/What inspires you to write?

I actually don’t often feel inspired to write at all. It’s certainly not a word I’d choose to describe how I feel about it. I’ve never once thought things like, “Come now, if Tenzing and Hillary can reach the summit of Everest then you can finish this chapter.”

I think writing is over-mystified. It’s true there’s a lot that’s very strange about it, because it’s so closely connected to the brain and we know so little about the brain, and in these circumstances we have to come up with ways to talk about it. I think a lot of it is rudimentary, everyday thought processes applied to an unusually elaborate task (that records those processes). Of course you’re going to end up with something odd, like a novel.

In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky talks about The Contemplator, a painting by Kramskoi. Dostoevsky says: “it depicts a forest in winter, and in the forest, standing all by himself on the road, in deepest solitude, a stray little peasant in a ragged caftan and bast shoes; he stands as if he were lost in thought, but he is not thinking, he is “contemplating” …, if he were asked what he had been thinking about while standing there, he would most likely not remember, but would most likely keep hidden away in himself the impression he had been under while contemplating. These impressions are dear to him, and he is most likely storing them up imperceptibly and even without realizing it—why and what for, he does not know either; perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, he will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both."

Or perhaps he will write a book. So if writing is a result of anything, it’s a result of a series of impressions, I think, that build up and build up, then are released in this great gusty blast of creativity. Often with very little conscious participation.

Who is your favorite character? Why?

I’m fond of all of the characters for very different reasons, so it’s impossible to pick a favorite. Boris and Courtz bring a harder philosophical edge to the story, the Witch brings a lot of fun and awfulness, etc. Martha was by far the most recent major character to appear – she came into it fully formed, right at the moment I needed her. I was only one or two pages away from her appearance and I still had no idea she was about to show up. When she did, it was a very nice surprise. Where she came from or why she is the way she is I have no idea – I don’t know anyone like her, and I never sat down and “thought her up”. Characters like this are great blessings. It’s like someone just comes along and says, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about me, I’m here to help!”

Did you know how the story was going to end before you started writing?

When I rewrote the book for Pushkin, of course I knew absolutely what was going to happen in the end. But first time round, for the version that was published in German translation, not at all. To anyone who has read the book, this will seem virtually unbelievable, but I didn’t have the faintest idea. Generally I don’t make plans, partly because I find another way of working more satisfying and mysteriously fruitful, but also because my brain goes dead when I try to think in that way--I can literally feel the thing shutting down and saying, “Wake me up when you’re prepared to treat me with respect.”

At one stage, back in 2003 or 2004, I had a very loose plan for five books, and my “plan” for the final book was “they get to the Woods” – but that was as far as it went. Any author who really made plans would have looked at it and laughed their heads off. Even when it was all reduced to one book, I still had no idea what was going to happen more than five or ten pages ahead. Of course you can make very general predictions. I knew Max would have to get to the Woods ideally about a third of the way through—I couldn’t have him getting to the Woods in the last chapter. But beyond things like that I had no idea. I even remember writing and writing and suddenly thinking, Oh, I could end it in a couple of chapters if I wanted. And I was quite astonished myself, at how it all came together.

Did anything get left out in the final draft?

You mean cut against my wishes? I’m only a first time author and I’ve got very, very limited experience of this, but I’m guessing things always get “left out”. I think probably as a general rule the author is definitely correct that the 400 page book should be 500 pages, and the editor is definitely correct that the 400 page book should be 300 pages. What happens next is just the ancient story: you can “take to the mattresses” in a Mafia turf war, or it can be worked out over espresso with a bit of give and take on both sides. It’s up to you. There was a character, a man called Klaus, who was in the original version of the story, who was very dear to me, very special and whose outlook really embodied a lot of what the story was about: he was just one of those Stephans or Klauses I’d read about in fairy tales, except not a Prince or a Tailor, he was an “unknown German inventor”, a simple soul trying to understand a problem. He got axed a bit for the German translation, and axed completely for the Pushkin version. Chop chop. He’s there in spirit. I smuggled part of his soul into Boris. Still, I miss him.

How did you get your ‘big break’?

Thanks to the intervention of a friend in Berlin who worked in academic publishing and sent the book to what was then Sauerlander, a German publisher, and is now Fischer KJB. I was about to self-publish on Amazon’s Createspace after trying and failing, for years and years, to find a publisher. He said, "Why don’t you send it to me, I’ll see what I can do." I actually thought this was a complete waste of time, and I had everything paid up and ready to go with Createspace – my finger was hovering over the button. But to my absolute astonishment it all worked out. He got it to an editor, she read it, she loved it, they bought it, and that was it.

Every UK publisher I sent it to rejected it--the only German publisher who saw it picked it up. I don’t know what this says about the two markets. I think (though this is a bit fanciful) that if it wasn’t for Michael Ende, they never would have bought it. Maybe the Germans are more accustomed to the idea of the “weighty” children’s book. I think the people at Sauerlander who read it knew and loved Michael Ende from their own childhoods, and saw an echo of Ende in The Beginning Woods. They compared it a lot to The Neverending Story, which, actually, I’ve never read. So perhaps I got my big break because of Gregor and Michael Ende.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I’ve been on the move most of my adult life, living in one place or another, so I’ve never really had a favorite place. When I lived in Berlin, I used to sit at the bar on the top floor of the Tacheles art squat and edit the manuscript. There was an Israeli bar woman there who had a really funky look and a surly manner. I was quite attracted to her and of course it’s great to sit and edit a manuscript under the nose of a surly woman you’re attracted to. Also, a friend’s croft on the isle of South Uist. That was a great place to write--no internet, a fire, weather that came at you through the walls. Perfect. But I was only there for a few days.

Have you ever wanted to do anything other than write?

As a career? I’ve never really had strong desires in this department. I’ve never really visualized myself as [insert job]. I can’t even really honestly say that I “wanted” to be an actor or a writer, in the sense of a strong desire. I was very interested in the things in themselves, not in how they acquire their particular shapes as careers. In other words I have an amateur’s attitude towards them. But I’m not embarrassed by that at all.

You can only read three books for the rest of your life, what would they be?

Ooof! Who thought up this barbarous question?! They’d have to be biggies with lots in them, so….Mysteries, by Knut Hamsun. The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky. Austerlitz, by W G Sebald.

Do you visit your local library?

I don’t, no. I’ve spent most of my adult life living abroad and only recently come back to the UK, so I’m still a bit at sea with things. I was in the habit of going to the libraries in London when I was an actor. I was about as dilapidated and successful as Withnail, and I’d shamble around places like that quite a lot, either for internet access or the magazines / newspapers. They weren’t my local ones, they were the Camden library (I think now moved), and the Charing Cross library. When I was in Glasgow I tried going to the Mitchell Library to write for a couple of weeks, but I would always, always fall asleep.

Tell us your favorite childhood memory involving books ...

Well, I used to read all over the place. The best thing was to go somewhere a bit secret, like behind a bush or at the back of the garage or up in the attic. There was a big cherry tree in the garden, and I would climb up there and sit in the branches and read. I miss being a kid, I really do.

Is there a book you’d wish you had written?

It’s a strange thought. Writing for me is very closely connected to who I am and my own nature, so although there are of course a huge number of books I love and admire much, much more than my own, the feeling doesn’t assume that particular form. I think I wish I’d written my next three books, whatever they are, before this one.

Any advice for budding authors?

These are the things I’m constantly telling myself, so maybe they might apply to others too, depending on their situation:

Try to have aspirations about what you’re doing. Remember you can push this as far as you want to.

Don’t be embarrassed if your ambitions are lofty.

Literature is about the transmission of the human condition through time. That's not an automatic process. We make it happen, or it doesn’t happen.

So, write from your condition.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I’ve nearly finished another book actually. I’ve been working on it off and on for a while. It’s not related to The Beginning Woods at all though.


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