An interview with Mari Strachan

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Tell me about Gwenni and her progression. Do you personally feel that sense of loss – the childhood wonder? Do we (adults) all need to get back to that place more, at least in our dreams?

I do think that children possess a sixth sense that gradually disappears, or becomes disused, as they reach adulthood, and that it’s more pronounced in some children than others. If Gwenni has inherited her mother’s bipolar disorder might her sixth sense be enhanced or maybe compromised by the illness? I don’t know the answer to that.

I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God, but I do believe that there is a kind of spiritual element to life on earth, and maybe that is where the flying takes place. I don’t know for sure if some kinds of mental illness enhance our capacity to embrace this other element, and I’m interested in the answer to that, and in the whole thing about what is ‘normal’ and what is not and who decides and let’s medicate them or send them for therapy if they’re not ‘normal.’ Where is the ‘real’ world – inside us or outside us?

I’m finding that the main character in my next novel is slightly out of kilter with those around her, just as Gwenni is, though in a different way. She is an adult and has had to learn to hide her ‘oddness’ – though not always successfully. I wonder if that is what many of us do as adults – hide those things that are ‘childish’ in our natures?

Lavinia Trevor is a pretty major agent and only represents a few authors (and doesn’t take unsolicited submissions, at least anymore). She was the one who convinced me to get hold of The Earth Hums. Talk to me about the process you went through in obtaining her.

Lavinia Trevor is a star! The process of obtaining an agent is pretty straightforward, really. When I felt the book was ready, I began to do some research into the numerous literary agencies that exist, looking for someone who might be interested in The Earth Hums. The list of possibilities shrank alarmingly as I crossed off those I felt would not be interested (I looked at other authors/books they represented), those who were no longer accepting submissions, those who were rather daunting because they had such a huge number of famous authors on their list, and so on. I ended up with about ten names. I was attracted to Lavinia Trevor’s Agency because when I was trawling the web for information about the various agents I read a blogger’s remark that she had an interest in things that were a little different, a little quirky. Lavinia was still accepting submissions at the time, fortunately for me. She and another agency telephoned me within half an hour of one another! These things take time – Lavinia sent The Earth Hums to a trusted reader for a second opinion, we had some conversations over the telephone, we talked about what else I was planning to write (publishers are not generally keen to take on one-novel authors) and so on. Then when I accepted Lavinia’s offer to represent me, she offered The Earth Hums to various publishers – and it was such a relief to be able to leave all that ‘selling the book’ stuff to someone else! Then, in an uncanny repetition of the ‘two agents at the same time’ we had offers from two publishers! I liked the way Jamie Byng and Anya Serota (my editor) talked about The Earth Hums and decided to accept their offer for The Earth Hums and another novel to follow. The whole process, from my first letter to Lavinia, to accepting Canongate’s offer took nearly six months. And The Earth Hums in B Flat was published fifteen months later!

Talk to me a little about the process you went through once Canongate accepted the book. Did they make you do more editing?

Canongate is a wonderful publisher, and I’ve never regretted choosing them to publish The Earth Hums. They are a real writers’ publisher, and not afraid to take risks with unknown authors whose work they like. And they are so loyal to their authors and so hard working on their behalf.

I had no idea what to expect in the way of editing the book or otherwise preparing it for publication. I had worked very hard at re-writing and editing The Earth Hums to get it as right as I could make it before even thinking of submitting it to a literary agent. Lavinia’s reader had suggested that a change of focus in the last chapter would be good, however, so I was braced for some changing and editing. But I didn’t actually have to do much: Anya Serota also suggested a change of focus in the last chapter and more flying in the body of the book, but how I made these changes was entirely up to me. Fortunately, the ideas on how to incorporate more flying, and the new focus for the end chapter came to me fairly quickly and easily. There were one or two minor things – for instance, I had used the words shaking, shivering, and trembling rather more than I should have done, so I went through the book cutting them out! I was able to complete all the changes so that Canongate could print the finished ms in time for the London Book Fair in April 2008 (almost a whole year before publication), where the translation rights were sold to several countries – the Canongate rights staff are brilliant at their job!

The book is set in 1950s, in a place of little technology, and little money. But despite the poverty, there is a kind of satisfying sustainability to live — not much is wasted. This is a subject that you’re interested in, isn’t it? Are there lessons we can learn about sustainable living from the past?

I am very interested in all aspects of sustainability, but it is the environmental aspects that are most in the news because of their urgency.

We can always learn from the past, but I think the key to living sustainably is to think about it as living differently to the way most of us in the developed world live now. We just can’t go on taking more resources from the planet than it has to give. That’s just common sense. And climate change is a hard fact of life already for many countries. Add peak oil and a growing world population into the sum and it’s obvious that we should all be learning to live in a way that will enable us to cope with the challenges. I don’t think governments are acting anywhere nearly quickly enough on these issues, and I think change has to begin at that level to have the far reaching effect that is needed to bring about changes in people’s behaviour and their way of thinking. And I think the developed countries have a responsibility to take the lead on this since we are largely to blame for over-consumption of resources, and the over-production of the pollution that is aggravating if not causing climate change.

Talk to me about the Masters course in Creative Writing that you did with Manchester Metropolitan University. You wrote The Earth Hums as your dissertation. Did the university help at all with the route to publication? Have you considered progressing to the DPhil?

The Masters degree was done on-line with MMU. It was, I think, a bit of an experiment for the department, and the course was in its first year when I began studying, and we had one tutor, Dr Heather Beck, who was excellent. It has run every year since, and has several people teaching on it now. The main reason I found it so good was because it allowed you to write in your own style, there was no pressure to conform to some ideal in a teacher’s head (one of the criticisms of creative writing degrees it that they can produce clones of whoever is teaching on them!), and Heather and the other students fostered a confidence in me in my own writing that I lacked. ‘How to write’ was not taught, rather we studied other writers’ books and ‘dissected’ them to study the craft behind them, the techniques that the authors used to achieve their aims, and seminars were held on-line. Students gave one another critical feedback on their own writing in on-line workshops.

The university gave no help with publication, and gave no guarantees at all that a student’s work would be published. The dissertation novel had to be of ‘publishable’ quality in the view of the markers to pass, and a critique was given after the degree was awarded. I graduated with distinction and received positive feedback, both of which encouraged me to push on toward publication.

Aberystwyth University is my nearest university and they do a PhD in creative writing which I’m seriously thinking about trying for, but not until my second novel is finished. Put briefly, the PhD is concerned with the genesis of a novel as you write it, – which is fascinating stuff. I think I must be a frustrated academic!

Is it harder now, without that kind of imperative and support that you received from the university, to write the second novel?

The Masters was a part-time taught course for two years, with another year to finish the novel. There was limited support available in that third year, if it was needed. I found that I was able to work on my own and didn’t have recourse to that support. Something that was useful was having a deadline. It really sharpens the focus! The imperative is there with the second novel, too, in the sense that I have a two book deal with Canongate, and the second novel is due in June 2010 for publication in March 2011

You’ve got two new books on the go — one set during the Great War, and a series in Welsh for young children. Tell me a little more about those and where you’re at with them.

My second novel is set just after the Great War in the early 1920s, and already, as I research and write, I find that I’m revisiting some of the themes of my first novel, although this is a different book entirely. I’m in the messy stage with this one, pulling together ideas and seeing where they go, trying to catch the ‘voice’ for the main character, developing the first draft with the story line so that I have something to work on – throwing everything into the mix and giving it a good stir, and still waiting for that little pinch of magic that brings it all together!

The tri of Welsh stories take me back to one of your previous questions – I wanted to write something in the vernacular Welsh of the Harlech area rather than in standard Welsh, for young children, on living sustainably. I have four grandchildren – three of them are quite young, but the eldest is nine and he is fascinated by the idea that their names are travelling about the world in the dedication at the front of The Earth Hums. He was taken with the idea of appearing in some actual stories – so he does, along with his brother and cousins! I’m hoping my (very busy) daughter will find time to illustrate them, but failing that, I shall have to find a Welsh publisher willing to take them who can find an illustrator! But it is my second novel that has priority at the moment.

It helps me to have a deadline. The creativity is most often generated by working – I need something to be creative about! How does that saying go – something like writing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration? – there’s a lot of truth in that!

you teach as well or can you write pretty much full time now?

I’m past retirement age so I don’t have a job to go out to every day. My husband and I have a smallholding (a very small one!) which we are managing as a conservation project, and that takes up lots of time. I also travel from home for part of most weeks with my husband for his work (he’s a senior research fellow in education for sustainability at an English university, and also studying part time for a PhD). And I’m responsible for my elderly mother’s affairs and share her care with my sister. And of course there are our three children and four grandchildren that we visit or have visit us quite frequently. But the rest of the time is mine for getting on with my writing!

Many first novels are published and don’t make a huge impact on either the literary world or on the writer’s life. In what ways has your life changed since the publication of The Earth Hums, and why do you think that is?

Well, I still do all the things I did before publication and have to push in all the stuff that has come after – like writing answers to questions for various individuals, groups, blogs and magazines, writing articles about my writing, taking part in radio programmes and even once on TV!, appearing at events and festivals, keeping my website up-to-date (and what time consuming things they are!), corresponding with translators of The Earth Hums and its publishers in other countries, etc. etc. Time is an amazing dimension – it stretches ad infinitum! I’d say that the greatest changes are inner changes, in that I now feel I am allowed to acknowledge my writing as something important, and I feel confident that I can write another novel.

Gwenni is such a strong character. Do you think you’ll ever revisit her? Maybe in a sequel?

Many readers have asked if I’m planning a sequel, and I feel rather bad about saying ‘no’ – it’s left to the reader to decide what happens to Gwenni, in the sense of whether she has inherited her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how she will cope with it if she has. Some readers have told me that they are certain that Gwenni actually flies, because that also is left open to interpretation. I have a feeling that a sequel might disappoint readers who have a certain idea of Gwenni in the same way that a film of a book can leave you feeling that the characters are not the ones you read about!

What’s the biggest challenge right now for you as a writer?

Writing a book that is different to my first novel without disappointing all the readers who have so much enjoyed Gwenni’s take on the world in The Earth Hums. And making it a better book.

About the interviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup.