Noah Quince is a very unique character, one who attracts sympathy, dislike, distaste and support all in equal measures. He is someone you can both laugh at and laugh with. Where did the character of Noah himself come from?
First of all, thanks for giving me the opportunity to do this interview. Where did Noah come from? This is a hard one to answer. I can tell you where the name came from… A friend was staying for the weekend and we set off on a walk. As we passed my neighbour’s garden, we admired a fruit tree, full of bloom. My friend asked if it was a pear tree. My reply was, ‘No, a quince.’ And for some reason, what I’d said echoed in my head all the way on our walk. I couldn’t get rid of the ‘name’ Noah Quince even though it hadn’t started out as a name. The character grew from the name. I wanted to write about someone difficult, unpleasant, troubled and troubling. Noah was born…
You seem to have captured the whole gamut of society within the three main characters. Godfrey is the ying to Noah’s yang, with Helen sitting in the centre of them. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Well, you’ve hit on something there – it was good to have such different characters, they balance each other, I suppose. Godfrey and Helen took me by surprise, in their own ways, as much as Noah. Both of them turned out to be more tolerant and kind than I expected. That fascinated me – and made me think about relationships generally. How complex they can be, what they provide for the various individuals, why some people are willing to be a friend even when they’re treated badly.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
I think the hardest part was trying to get rid of my own internal censor, judge, disapproving ‘you can’t write that’ critical voice. I was at UEA on a creative writing course while writing some of Noah Quince, so sharing it with the other students and tutor was scary enough, but at a deeper level, I was worried about readers reactions. Fortunately, everyone on the course was supportive, which was the beginning of me being able to ‘take the brakes off’ and write this horrible character in all his repulsive, cruel, self-obsessed nastiness.
Do you have a personal favourite from your own story collection?
From Grave Misgivings, my collection of short stories, I guess my favourite is a story called ‘Growing Things’ but whenever I look back at stories I’ve written, I tend to find fault rather than think of favourites… I suppose it’s the same for any sort of creativity. It’s always possible to revisit things and see how they could be better…maybe that’s why writers keep on writing. To get it right, to do it better.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I know it’s always been there, but I’m not sure where it comes from. I can’t pinpoint a time when I started to write because it feels like something I’ve done forever. Like second nature. I used to make up stories to tell my sister when we were children. She was a great listener, getting completely immersed in the story. I was always an imaginative child but have often wondered how that might have developed (or not) without my sister there to listen. She plays a big part in my interest in writing.
What is your biggest source of inspiration as an author?
People-watching and overheard conversations.
What is the major theme of your work?
I love looking for the odd, unexpected and horrific in the everyday and mundane. I’m drawn to characters that are not run-of-the-mill; the outsiders, oddballs, loners and misfits.
Who are some of your favourite authors and why?
Lesley Glaister – I love her writing for the darkness she conjures, the unsettling sense of things going awry, while still telling stories about real people. I find that more scary and thought-provoking than any amount of obvious and superficial horror.
Stephen King – his characters are so real, flawed, credible. When things happen to them, the reader cares. And he’s so good at evoking fear and unease, tapping into that universal sense of being scared of what’s out there in the dark.
Charles Dickens – for the wonderful characters, the observation of humanity, the names – such a visual writer; the characters come to life off the page.
Plus many more, including Ian McEwan, Julie Myerson, Sarah Walters, Edna O’Brien, Kate Atkinson.
Do you have a tip about the writing process that you could share?
It would probably be connected to what I mentioned above – about letting go, writing honestly rather than to please / not offend someone. I think writing can only work when it’s done with freedom. When Noah was finished someone (who hadn’t read it) said to me, ‘Please think of the children when you write something else.’ This had quite an impact on me and for a while, I felt responsible for corrupting all children, everywhere. Bit of an over-reaction – I don’t even write for children – but it had the effect of filtering everything I wrote. Ultimately, I was too conscious of how my writing would be received; too aware of treading carefully, and I just seized up. Focus on your breathing and you’ll find it less easy to let it happen automatically – it was a bit like that.