Which writers or poets inspire you and why?
I find that the best storytellers are the ones who genuinely want to draw you in, engage you, fascinate you, amuse you, make you feel and understand and learn. They’re the ones who bring the reader and the story together in such a way that you almost forget the writer was ever there. I’m much less excited by writers who have a style that shows off their storytelling skills. I hate to be distracted by the mechanism.
Do you have a ‘must read’ list?
No. I don’t think anyone should be made to feel guilty or inadequate if they haven’t completed a “to do” list of the literary greats. There are hundreds of thousands of books, and more appearing every day. Why make reading a chore when it should be a pleasure? The problem with a list is that something good always gets missed off, and one person’s must-read will leave another reader wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m afraid there is a certain type of snob who thinks if they’ve read what is considered to be “good” literature then it gives them a licence to spout their views on anything in print, but reading a little rubbish teaches discernment. I believe that the right book tends to come along at the right moment, usually when we’re ready to hear what it has to say.
Are there some themes you enjoy more than others?
I’m interested in how characters react to unusual and negative experiences involving isolation, physical privation or moral coercion. It’s very instructive, how writers handle the disjunction between common good, common experience, and the outsider, particularly where the outsider is not necessarily very nice or in the right. I also like stories with an element of the surreal, fantastical or magical: Kate Atkinson and Ben Aaronovitch are two writers who do this really well, but in very different ways. I’m afraid I don’t have much patience with chic-lit with a high cupcake count, or any kind of cold-war spy-thriller.
Have you ever been disappointed by a ‘highly recommended’ book?
Quite often! I went through a very long phase of only reading about three-quarters of anything, never finishing the last few chapters, because I had the misfortune to read a few very well thought-of books (I won’t mention any in particular!) which had such disappointing endings I felt I didn’t want to take the risk. I was cured me of my “last chapter phobia” by Clare Boylan’s Beloved Stranger, which I did read to the end, not least because of my own family situation at that time. The last line was so truly horrific it made me shriek. But I do still approach the ends of novels with a lot of trepidation. Even some of my favourite books are let down by the last few paragraphs: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, which I love. I feel he lost his nerve slightly: he brings in an element of hope in the last couple of pages which I don’t find plausible. Endings are definitely the hardest thing to write.
Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by a self-published writer?
Yes. I’ve read a couple of things recently that were extremely interesting. I think authors who choose to self-publish do sometimes suffer from an image problem from the days when vanity publishing was seen as the last resort of the hopeless amateur. These days, because publishing as an activity has changed so much, there are far better reasons for going down that route. It’s one of the ways traditional publishing houses find good new authors. If you have the time and the money to be sure of getting an end result that looks professional, then I’d say why not? Where self-published books tend to let themselves down is where there hasn’t been enough attention paid to editing and proofing, and doing the cover on the cheap is usually a mistake. The other thing is that you have to put in a lot of effort with sales and marketing: it’s not for the faint -hearted. Unfortunately, being a great writer doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great publisher as well.
What advice would you give your younger writing self?
Stop faffing about and get on with it! My first novel (Roadkill) is coming out this year, and I feel I could have had a career as a writer if I’d started sooner; ideally in my 30s. I’ve wasted a lot of time working in offices. That said, plenty of authors started relatively late in life: Anita Brookner, for instance, didn’t start writing until her 50s and she published over twenty novels, so it’s never too late – but it does focus the mind.
And you can meet Marcia on her website: www.marciawoolf.com