When a new author tries to break through we, at Falcata Times, always want to give them a fair crack of the whip, as such, its our pleasure to bring you this interview with new author AL Berridge to give you the opportunity to meet and greet.
Here we get an honest and frank opinion about writing, a touch of humour and above all a writer who loves to read and promote the genre over themselves. A rare trait these days...
FALCATA TIMES: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
A L BERRIDGE: I think ‘affliction’ is too strong. Wishing you couldn’t write would be like wishing to be colour-blind, and why would anyone do that? What really tortures a writer is when they can’t write, because that’s when there’s no release. I like the idea of calling it an affliction, though: it’s much more tortured and glamorous than ‘mental constipation’...
I do agree with the second part of the statement. When a story moves into your head it simply has to be ‘told’ before you can evict it, but I’ve never been able to choose when that happens. I had a long period of unemployment back in 1999 and told myself I’d write a novel, but I never got beyond the second chapter. It’s just as well really, since it sucked like a Dyson.
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
ALB: I was about six when I wrote my first ‘book’, a really hideous attempt at an Enid Blyton mystery. My sisters still kindly remind me of the story, which finally exposed the greengrocer as the robber because he’d conveniently left a cabbage at the scene of the crime.
I still didn’t consciously decide to be a writer, because I didn’t think it was possible. As a child I thought writing was just a matter of telling the story, but when I studied real literature I finally understood how much the words themselves mattered, how even changing one or two in a paragraph could destroy the rhythm and leave me with an indigestible lump of prose. It scared me right away from the whole idea.
I found other ways of telling stories, first as a teacher and then as a script editor and producer in television drama, and as long as I was getting them ‘out’ somehow I was satisfied. It’s only when I left television and had no other outlet that I was forced to try writing for myself.
FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
ALB: I honestly don’t know, because I’ve never written a short story - I’m quite sure I don’t have the dazzling laparoscopic skills they demand.
That in itself would seem to support the statement, but the disciplines are so different it’s hard to be sure. One writers’ forum I visit occasionally prompts questions from published writers who can’t work out how to turn their short story into a novella or ‘pad out’ a novella into a novel. The main difficulties seem to be with learning how to vary pace, how to interweave subplots, and how to sustain narrative drive over a longer format.
FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?
ALB: My best chance would probably be to get them to compare the relative weights of the books and see which gave better value. Mine is certainly a big, fat read.
The truth is I’m a rotten saleswoman. So many different people have enjoyed HONOUR AND THE SWORD it’s hard to focus on a particular selling point for any one anonymous reader. I could say that men are most drawn to the historical detail and action sequences, while women home in on the romance element and the relationships between the men, but even those are massive generalizations. Lots of women enjoy battles too!
If I had to make a more global pitch, I’d probably point out it’s an antidote to recession. As a
historical epic set in 17th century France, it allows the reader to escape for a time into a completely different world – and one where ordinary people in appalling circumstances found the strength to pick themselves up and fight back.
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
ALB: With great difficulty. Apart from that very English diffidence about ‘selling oneself’, I suspect the worst person to attempt a snappy summary of a book is the one who actually wrote it. When you’ve met someone for five minutes at a party it’s easy to sum them up in a sentence – but can you do the same with your partner of twenty years? The more you know, the harder it is.
I shall now demonstrate this conclusively by trying anyway:
The explanatory pitch would be:
‘A young French nobleman joins with ordinary villagers in the Thirty Years War to drive out the brutal Spanish invaders.’
The emotive pitch would be:
‘17th century France, heroes with swords, and an epic tale of love, friendship and betrayal during a bloody European war.’
FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
ALB: My bookshelves are dominated by classics, especially Austen, Dickens, and of course Dumas, but Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden are beginning to squeeze them out. A new novel from either of them will always see me early at the bookstore.
But the one I’m awaiting most eagerly right now is Michelle Lovric’s ‘The Book of Human Skin’, which isn’t out till the 10th of April. She specializes in Renaissance Venice, and writes in multiple first person POV as I do, but her verbal pyrotechnics are out of this world. She’s also delightfully evil, and this one promises to be her darkest yet.
FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your ideas develop as you write?
ALB: ‘HONOUR AND THE SWORD’ was my first novel, so I don’t really know what I ‘normally do’. The pattern to date has been to begin with maybe two pages of outline and the main character arcs over three acts, then plunge in and see what happens. When the story starts to take a wildly different direction I stop and do another outline, along with notes of adjustments to be made in what I’ve done so far.
Writing in multiple first person, I have to get so far inside my characters a profile would actually create an unhelpful distance. When they do something I don’t expect or mention something I didn’t know, I jot it down in a notepad to remind me to check it’s consistent all through, then just develop it the way it wants to go.
What I do have to do, however, is keep a running record of the characters’ speech patterns, then be ruthless about checking it at the next pass. Each has a slightly different rhythm as well as favoured words and phrases, and each structures their sentences in their own way. For instance, I have two characters who sometimes use present tense in their narratives, but where Carlos uses what I’d call ‘the anecdotal present’, eg ‘So I says to my Capitán’, Jacques uses it only when for some reason a memory has become so vivid he’s actually reliving the moment.
FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
ALB: I walk when I can. My family used to live in the Lake District, and nothing beats the fells for unravelling the knots. Sadly there’s not been time for that lately, as I’m working to deadline on the next book, so I’m afraid I’m sitting at a computer getting flabby.
There’s also a lot of research involved in this next book, so the books I’ve read most recently are: ‘Cardinal de Retz’ by J. H. M. Salmon and the charmingly gruesome ‘Tortured Subjects’ by Lisa Silverman. The most recent read for pure enjoyment was ‘The Stopping Place’ by the brilliant Helen Slavin.
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
ALB: You think I’m going to let you put that on the net???
Seriously, though, I don’t think I feel much guilt about the things I enjoy, except the ones that make me fat or take time away from my work. The worst of those is probably an evil thing on my computer called Mahjong Titans which I play compulsively when my husband thinks I’m writing. I’m adept at hiding it on the desktop when I hear him coming.
FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
ALB: We don’t have pets, I’m afraid, mainly because I used to work so much away from home. I did have two enormous hamsters named Eric and Norman who used to run loose round the sitting room, and the back of my sofa is still in rags where they chewed it up for bedding. Eric (bless him) once climbed up into my desk drawers and ate half my tax return.
So I was going to answer ‘no’ to this, feeling rather smug at being the exception, but then I remembered that we regularly feed the birds in our garden and they’re never shy of letting us know when we’re late. That’s why in HONOUR AND THE SWORD Anne is so reluctant to give up feeding the birds even when her own food is running short.
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
ALB: Probably Stefan Ravel, the cynical ex-soldier, because I don’t seem able to control him at all. All the characters surprise me from time to time, but Stefan can make me feel as if my car’s suddenly acquired dual controls and it’s someone else who’s driving. He did something terrible in the middle of HONOUR AND THE SWORD which I couldn’t explain at all, and my notebooks are full of jottings to the effect of ‘This goes nowhere – CUT IT!’ It wasn’t until near the end I understood exactly why he’d done it, and later still when I saw exactly where it was leading.
FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?
ALB: Hardly at all. André is a young French nobleman with a serious temper, while I’m an ageing, mild-mannered Englishwoman who says ‘Please’ and ‘sorry’ more than anything else.
We share perhaps one thing, and that’s the Don Quixotic need to tilt at windmills and throw ourselves into crusades. André has a very real cause to fight as well as the means to do it, but I just get angry and frustrated at anything I perceive as injustice. Reading the newspapers is definitely not good for me.
FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
ALB: I wish I could say fencing, but as an unfit asthmatic that’s hardly realistic. I still love swords, and will watch anything that has to do with them. Last summer I went to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, and only wish I could have moved in. I have two reproduction rapiers and spend hours trying to reproduce the moves of historical fencing, ostensibly as research for my books but really just because it’s fun.
I’ve also recently discovered Living History and Reenactment. As a woman I’m effectively barred from the military side of it that interests me most, but that doesn’t stop me being an enthusiastic audience. When we made a video trailer for HONOUR AND THE SWORD I got to work with both an experienced musketeer and two superb historical swordsmen, which was wonderful.
I think the word we’re probably looking for here is ‘geek’.
FT: Where do you get your ideas from?
ALB: Where do you?
Who knows where the good stuff comes from? An idea might be sparked by something one sees or hears, a chance remark, even a half-heard line on the radio that makes one wonder what the rest was, but I think its real source is somewhere a lot deeper.
I’m a great believer in the Jungian theory of the Collective Unconscious and suspect the ideas are in one vast deep well we can all of us tap into if we learn to listen. I named my hero ‘André de Roland’ without any conscious thought, and it was ages before I connected it with ‘Childe Roland’, let alone the ‘Chanson de Roland’ itself. When I finally read the French poem it made me shiver with recognition.
FT: Do you ever encounter writer’s block and if so how do you overcome it?
ALB: Frequently – but I’ve learned to listen to it rather than overcome it. When I’m stuck, it’s always for a reason, and I need to stand back for a while until I work out what. Somehow, somewhere, I’ve taken the story down the wrong road and need to back up until I find where the problem is before I can really go forward.
There’s a lot of advice out there about ploughing on blindly through the blocks, but I no longer believe in that. Writing’s like knitting – if there’s a hole, then simply grinding on won’t solve it. You need to unravel to the source of the problem, then take it from there.
I only wish I’d learned that three years ago.
FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?
ALB: I’m very lucky in being able to write full time, so I can arrange my schedule to suit the times I work best, which tend to be: between about 6.30am and 12 noon, again between about 5.00 and 8.00pm, then again between about 11.00pm and 03.00am.
There is a kind of logic to it. Many writers claim they write best straight after sleeping, when the mind’s still halfway between the two worlds. Many also find it hard to write straight after eating, when everything’s dealing with the stomach rather than the brain. So what I do is divide every day into two. I write for as long as I can in the mornings, then go back to bed after lunch so I can resume for the evening session. After supper I have a ‘brain dead’ period when I do e-mails and business. I do internet interviews then too, which probably explains a lot...
This would be a real problem in the household, but my husband is a freelance television sound engineer who works even stranger hours than I do. A week ago I was crawling up to bed at 03.30am when he was just getting up to tackle an international broadcast of bob-sleigh.
The postman thinks we’re a bit odd, though. Whatever time he comes, he’s always greeted by a bad-tempered person in a dressing gown.
FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
ALB: This is so true. I write action sequences to Saint-Saens’ Organ Concerto, emotional scenes to Gounod, and everything else to miscellaneous Café de Paris music, especially Piaf. Individual characters and really tricky scenes have sometimes required specific pieces, and I never really got inside the head of Anne at fifteen until I tried Massenet’s Le Dernier Sommeil de la Vierge. This piece should really be better known. Imagine a girl on the brink of becoming a woman, both the sadness and the glory of it – and Massenet has painted it more beautifully and sensitively than I could ever, ever write.
That said, when I really needed a kick up the backside the track that used to get me going for HONOUR AND THE SWORD was neither French nor classical – it was ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ by Keane. For the next book, working-titled SHAME AND GLORY, it’s ‘When I Ruled the World’ by Coldplay. Somewhere in both these tracks is the André who’s neither French nor seventeenth century, but the man we’d like to believe in even now.
FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?
ALB: I didn’t even think about getting published when I started, I just wanted to write the story. By the time it was suggested to me that might be a possibility I’d already gone about as wrong as it’s possible for an amateur to go – HONOUR AND THE SWORD was over 500,000 words long. It seemed reasonable to me, I had books on my shelf that length, and it never occurred to me they were by seriously established authors with a guaranteed audience. I actually submitted HONOUR AND THE SWORD at that length before rejection taught me better.
Otherwise I found the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook extremely helpful in navigating the minefield. I knew I hadn’t a clue when I started, but everything I needed to know was right there.
FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
ALB: If music is the food of love, then writing is its indigestion. I know I had a husband round here somewhere, I’m sure I saw him somewhere between the first and second drafts...
But writing is also the touchstone of love. If a man (or woman) can still love you when you write, then they’re worth way more than the traditional price of rubies. My husband went out and worked appalling hours so I needn’t go back to television and could concentrate on finishing That Damn Book. If HONOUR AND THE SWORD is successful, then I may get the credit – but the glory belongs more properly to him.
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
ALB: At the end of HONOUR AND THE SWORD I have a hero trained to the nobility’s code of honour but now also imbued with a sense of humanity gleaned from living for four years among ordinary people. In a small village united against the invaders, that’s all fine and wonderful – but what I wanted to find out was how he’d survive in the real world. That’s what the series is really going to be about.
In SHAME AND GLORY André’s going out into a France rigidly divided by caste, still threatened by Spanish forces on its borders, and about to be torn in two by major civil conflict. The dangers pursue him from the streets of Paris to the battlefields of La Marfée and Rocroi, but this time he’s fighting for more than his home. At stake are his life, his country, and the woman he loves – but what if the price of saving them should be his own honour?
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
ALB: The last three were:
This one gives the day of the week for any month in 1641
This one enables me to calculate sunrise and sunset times for any day in any year in France.
This one enables me to work out when Easter fell in any given year.
The reasoning behind these is simple but dull. Because an event is recorded in Anne’s diary I need to be date-specific, which means it has to get dark at exactly the right time. Since my characters are eating rabbit in April, I need to make sure it’s neither a Sunday (when they shouldn’t be cooking) or in Lent (when they shouldn’t be eating meat).
Before those, I visited:
This is pure frivolity. 101 Reasons To Stop Writing always cheers me up when I’m stuck.
I was going to cheat about the last one and swap it for something interesting, but actually it was:
Well, a woman’s got to live...
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
ALB: No, I never have – unless you count an English degree. The best teachers I’ve found are the ones on my own bookshelves, and when I wonder how to tackle a narrative problem I’ll often look at favourite authors to see how they did it. Working as a script editor with real writers in television has also been invaluable, and I’m sure I learned far more from them than they ever did from me.
I did, however, find Linda Seger’s book ‘Making A Good Script Great’ very useful when I started script-editing, and many of the structural and narrative principles are the same in writing a novel. For sheer inspiration in novel writing I’d also recommend Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.
FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
ALB: I haven’t. I loathe it. Years of working in television and enduring the horror of reviews ought to have toughened me up, but a book is so personal that rejection is a far deeper pain. There’s a bit in Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ when Paul goes for his first job interview, and seeing his own carefully crafted letter of application in the prospective employer’s hand is ‘like seeing a part of himself gone astray’. It feels like that with a book.
At the same time, I’ve always found criticism helpful in the process of making a book better, and even rejection can have the same effect. My first two rejections were what finally drove me to do the research I should have done in the first place, and realize I was trying to sell a book that was way, way too long. Once I knew that, I simply rewrote it shorter, and the problem was solved. Much as those rejections hurt, they were telling me something I really needed to know, and I have to remember that lesson for the future.
FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
ALB: The best – Nobody stops me writing. I don’t even need to feel guilty about doing it, because it’s suddenly a legitimate job.
The worst – Mark Twain had it right: ‘Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.’ Now I have to write. When I started, it didn’t matter much if what I wrote was any good, or if I really knew what I was doing. It didn’t even matter when the ideas didn’t come; it just meant I caught up with the housework instead. Now I live with the constant terror that what I’m writing simply isn’t good enough. Now the idea-less days are a source of panic.
But it would be ludicrous of me to complain. I’m doing what I’d do anyway, I’m doing what gives me more pleasure than anything else, and someone is paying to feed me while I do it.
Sometimes I think I’m the luckiest person in the world.