On the 17th of May, 2017, Joanne Tropello kindly invited me to answer some interesting questions. In the nature of a blog, such things soon get buried under new posts, so I am reproducing the interview here, with her permission.
How do you write page turning fiction?
I have invented this machine that turns pages, even if the reader is asleep. So, this is exactly in tune with our modern world where people need to get more and more efficient doing more and more to achieve less and less.
Unfortunately, people have let me know that they don’t get any use out of my page turner, because they stay awake while reading. If you look at the reviews of all my books, they are 4 or 5 stars, except for one from a wretched fellow who gave me a 3. Even he didn’t brag of having fallen asleep.
How to do that? The secret is that fiction is about emotion.
If a work of fiction is not about emotion, it’s not worth reading. Emotion IS fiction. When people pick up a novel or a short story, it’s because they want to be entertained. This means, they want to be temporarily taken out of the reality of their lives, to escape its tensions and stresses, or its boredom and meaninglessness. They want to have a holiday in the reality the author has created.
You won’t get such a holiday in an intellectual exercise. If that’s your aim, you’ll play a game, or read nonfiction.
Reading about the lives of my characters needs to induce people to feel emotions appropriate to the situation in the story. I need to portray the children of my imagination in a way to make that possible. And how on earth can I do that, unless I feel the emotions myself?
There is a guided imagery exercise I recommend to some of my editing clients. Get completely relaxed. Then imagine being the character whose point of view you are using to convey a scene. BE that person, in that situation. If you were to look in a mirror (which is hard to do when you’ve got your eyes closed), you’d see your character, not yourself.
Now, feel what it is like to live in that body. I am bald, but my teenage hero has longish, straight hair. I can feel that hair tickling my ears, covering my forehead. I am a male, but the girl who is the witness to the current scene has rather big breasts. I HAVE them and need to adjust my back to take the weight. I am sitting quietly with my eyes closed, but the witness of my story is running hard, in pouring rain. I feel my pounding footsteps repeatedly sinking into soft ground, feel the rain lashing my face, my soggy clothes weighing me down…
Next, I need to deal with the situation facing my character. And if it’s worth including in a story, it’s a situation that advances the plot in some way. That is, it needs to involve emotion. So, being the character, I feel the emotion.
Then I can open my eyes, and my fingers will fly on the keyboard.
Personally, I don’t need to carry out such a formal exercise. I’ve been at it long enough that I can look at a blank screen, and know that I next need to write about a 19 year old girl in Victorian times whose fiancé has just attempted to rape her:
- Kirsten sprinted through the grass, raising her dress with one hand, while screaming with all her might, her singing-trained lungs making a sound she hoped would carry all the way home. Between breaths, she heard Luke’s pounding steps behind, but then clearly he thought better of it. She risked a backward glance to see him move away toward the trees.
She was safe, for now.
Panting, a slight stitch in her side, she slowed to a walk, but still hurried home, feeling incredibly tired with the release of tension. But now, there was Father…
The day had started so well. Kirsten was happily practicing her violin when the door flew open, and her friend Susannah barged in. She shouted over the music, “The mushrooms are out!” She waved a cane basket around. “Come, it’s pleasant outside.”
Kirsten put the instrument on its rest, and the bow onto the music stand. “You are a nuisance,” she said, but smiling. “I need to practice for church next Sunday, because the Reverend Mr. Taylor told me at yesterday’s service that he wishes to introduce a new piece by Handel. We’ve transcribed if for solo violin. It’s complex enough to need a month of practice, and I have a week.”
“Oh, all this high-faluting stuff! You know you always excel with your music. The sun is shining now, the mushrooms await us, and both our cooks will be delighted.”
Looking down on top of her friend’s dark head, Kirsten smiled, put on her bonnet and scarf, and followed Susannah out. They passed Mother, sitting at her loom, who said, “Do return for luncheon!”
“Yes, Mother. I expect to be an hour.” She fetched a basket of her own from the kitchen.
Indeed, the sun shone outside, taking the chill of early spring off the air, but soon they were in the cool shade of the not-quite forest that formed the boundary between the two families’ properties. They rapidly filled their baskets with mushrooms, to Susannah’s constant chatter, as she skipped from topic to topic.
“Shush a moment,” Kirsten interrupted. “Did you hear something behind us?”
They looked and listened. “What kind of sound?” Susannah whispered.
“As if someone trod on a twig or something.”
But if there had been a sound, it certainly didn’t repeat, and they continued until their baskets were overflowing. Then each turned for home.
Kirsten almost reached the edge of the trees when something stirred ahead, and then a gloating face looked at her as the person she hated the most blocked her path.
“Luke. You’ve been stalking us, haven’t you?”
“My love! My bride-to-be!” he mocked.
“I’d rather turn papist and be a nun!”
“What a waste that would be. No, you shall do as your father desires, like a good, obedient girl.”
“I will never marry you! I will not!”
“You’ll soon learn not to be so defiant!” He stepped toward her, threateningly.
Fear clenched her insides as she saw the viciousness in his eyes, but she made sure to show none of it. “That’s precisely why you’re the last male I’d ever marry. I have no desire to be a punching bag.”
“All so fancy! You should never have been sent to be spoiled in that school. You don’t need all that education to breed my sons!” He stepped closer again.
She had to do something. As his big paws reached for her, she shoved the basket full of mushrooms into his face, and swung her left hand hard, fingers bent. She felt her nails rake his cheek as she sprinted past him, lifting her dress up with one hand.
Thank the good Lord, she had escaped, this time.
“Were you screaming?” Mother demanded as she burst in. “And where is your basket?”
“I was attacked, Mother. Oh…” She couldn’t help it, Kirsten started sobbing, tears cascading down her face, chest heaving.
“You’re a lady. Take a deep, slow breath. Now.” Indeed, Kirsten managed to gain a little self-control. “Who was it?”
“Luke. He threatened me, and would have mauled me but I threw the mushrooms at him and scratched his face.”
Mother looked shocked. “That’s very… unwise to do to your fiancé. When you are his⎯-”
Kirsten shouted, “Mother, I will not marry him!”
Mother looked around in instant fear. “Shush! Someone may hear and tell your father.”
Again, Kirsten took a deep breath, to gain time to think. “Mother, he is violent. He’d have… have violated me if I hadn’t resisted.”
“Surely not! He is gently bred.”
“He is very good at acting the gentleman, but I know him. Ever since I was six years old and he seven, every time I was home from school he bullied me dreadfully. And when my bosom started to develop, this… er, involved my femininity. And like many times before, today he threatened me with what would happen when he owns me, as he thinks is certain.”
“Your father is very keen to complete the joining of the two families.”
“Don’t I know it? Haven’t I heard it a million times, both from him and from Mr. Mogden? But Emil and Meredith are married, and so are Sebastian and Joan. Isn’t that enough?”
Mother again looked around furtively, obviously terrified of having the conversation overheard. “You know Kapten Petersen will not be contradicted.”
“Please. I. Will. Not. Marry. That. Violent. Savage.” Kirsten whirled, and retired to her room where she could cry her heart out in private.
This is an extract from Guardian Angel. Have I managed to capture the emotion?
What’s your favorite childhood memory?
My childhood was miserable. Most of my memories are pretty dreadful. But all my life, I’ve had a memory of being a tiny little boy, dressed warmly with a soft knitted hat on my head. I am reaching up high with my right hand, holding a man’s finger. I can see the black shoe and dark trouser leg next to me. I know this is Grandfather, whom the Nazis took away and killed.
This was perhaps my only memory from before five years of age. In 2007, I discovered where it came from. I’d found a therapist I could go to as client–it’s very difficult to find a suitable person when you’re a senior psychotherapist yourself. We did age regression hypnosis to uncover my memories as an infant.
Here is an extract from Ascending Spiral:
- Somewhere in the distance, Caroline said… “Back. Back to the earliest thing you can remember in this life.”
Even in trance, I found the wording odd. But then I’m a tiny boy. I wear warm clothes, a bonnet on my head. My right arm is stretched way up, holding a man’s finger. I see his trousered leg next to me. Oddly, at the same time I’m looking down at a tiny boy, who is grasping the middle finger of my left hand. I am me, Pip, 2007 vintage, and my heart is filled with love and pity for this poor little tyke, knowing all the suffering ahead of him. I pick him up, and little-me Filip puts my arms around grandfather Pip’s neck and both my selves cry.
A slight explanation: the hero of Ascending Spiral has experienced all the events in my life, but has handled things the way I wish I had. So, this was actually grandfather Bob and little Robi.
What was the setting for the most action packed scene you’ve ever written?
Having pilfered stuff from two of my most recent books, I’d better grab one from Hit and Run.
- If I wasn’t an old girl of eighty-four, I’d be dead, too.
Not that I care — I’d be better off dead than the way I am. I haven’t slept since it happened. Every time I close my eyes, I see the horribly mutilated little bodies, Naomi’s white crossing supervisor uniform covered in deep red blotches and bits of her brain, and that boy’s gloating face as he flashed by.
It was on purpose. I saw it in the leer of his eyes, his half-open mouth. He looked like a naughty kid snatching a chocolate bar off the shelf before running out of the shop.
If I’d been able to walk as fast as the children, I’d have been among them, beside Naomi, but I was a few steps behind, leaning on my wheelie frame, so he missed me. I felt the wind of the red car’s passing, smelt the stink of its exhaust, was close enough for blood to splatter my stockings and the bottom of my dress. He missed my wheelie frame by inches.
Six lovely little children, none over seven years old I’d say. And kind, fat Naomi who always had a laugh for everyone, and was out there twice a day during school term, whatever the weather.
Dead. Killed. Snuffed out in an instant of terror.
And me, I live.
At first I felt nothing, only saw a meaningless painting of red and grey blots until some of the blots moved, I guess the twitches after death, and the horror swam into focus. A few seconds ago, that thing with the moving arm had been Shane: cheeky, with a freckled face and a gap-toothed grin. I’d often said hello to his mother. That broken doll had been a bright little girl with red plaits. She’d been singing the alphabet when the car appeared from nowhere.
Oh, how could he?
I guess I could have used this to illustrate emotion in writing, but it will serve here.