Monday, 24 August 2009

INTERVIEW: Robert Holdstock

Authors are said to be like a fine wine. The older they get, the better the experience of a journey in thier company. Recently Gollancz released Roberts new novel, Avilion which harks back to perhaps his most famous novel Mythago Wood so we took time to chase the author (whose book was described by Moorcock as "the outstanding fantasy book of the 80's" just to see who he was, find out a little about him and to find out about his weaknesses in regard to the ancient tales told around the campfires...

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?

Robert Holdstock: Well, I don't feel afflicted by it; and I would never dream of claiming to have writing as a 'gift', though I am certainly pleased that some or my writing has 'hit the mark', so to speak. Writing fiction is both a joy and a challenge. I started when I was about six, daft little stories, inspired by a grandfather who could tell a fantastic tale (ghosts, war, murder, wonderful stuff.) I would certainly die a great deal inside if I could never write again, for whatever reason. So yes, it's something I have to do. I'm fortunate, though, in having a wonderful partner in Sarah, and I'm sure she would help find me a new direction.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

RH: In 1974. It seemed the absolute right thing to do. I had so many ideas, so much sense of wonder, that what I'd been doing until then seemed to fade away. I submitted a novel to Faber and Faber, and on its acceptance, became a full-time writer. But I'd been writing for many years before that, as I said. It was my passion, though 90 percent of what I was producing was apprentice work.

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?

RH: I don't think it's true. A short story is a different shaping of words; so is a poem. A short story often ends up in a novel; a novel is often not much more than an over-elaborated short story. I've written in all three forms, but short stories are the most difficult.

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?

RH: I've done this, though with tongue firmly in cheek: "That's a good book, but this one's better. You'll never forget the characters. And the sense of wonder...!"

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

RH: "This book has myth new and old; you'll never forget the characters! And the sense of wonder..? Had me gasping."

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?

RH: Tennyson, Yeats, Hughes. Brewers Phrase and Fable. The Collins dictionary. The Mabinogion; The Tain; anything and everything by Homer. Certain books by certain writers that I read to remind me how good writing can be: the spur to my own efforts. But NOTHING in the world would find me waiting for a bookshop to open. I'll go when the crowds depart.

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 idea's develop as you write?

RH: Everything grows. I have an idea, I have some characters in my head, and when I get an idea of what it is I want to say, I start going for it. I do, I'm not afraid to say, write out of chaos. If a story begins as an unknown world to me, then there can be (I hope) that same sense of expectation and surprise for the reader.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

RH: I go out with mates, I play music, I cycle, I walk the hills, I travel, I talk. All very relaxing. I'm reading Stephen Baxter, Alistair Reynolds and China Mieville, and revisiting Tennyson. Let me recommend The Reader; and film-wise: Moon. If there's no novelisation of Moon, I'm up for it.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

RH: I have several guilty pleasures, and everyone I know knows about them.

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?)

RH: I have always loved cats. My last cat was a half Siamese. Brilliant animal. Extremely relaxed, and helped relax me when he curled up on my desk, and vaguely paid attention to my writing. Never demanding, just liking good company. The family dog is an exuberant Collie and I take care of her a lot. It's a mutual exercise thing. At the end of the day we sit quietly together, and I think about how the wolf became the friend of humankind. The connection, and the faithfulness, is intriguing. But people who think pets have human traits are just plain bonkers. So, no. I don't use them in any anthropomorphic way.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

RH: The word 'fun' doesn't come into it. I was most engaged with Yssobel. If she were real I’d be passionate about her I felt heartbroken for Odysseus. Jack intrigues me. I very much missed being able to bring Guiwenneth back into her truly lovely form from Mythago Wood, but Yssobel has occupied that space. Fun doesn't come into writing about imaginary people. Emotion and dedication to their unreal, yet very real lives, is everything.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

RH: I'm a dark-haired, dark-eyed, late-middle-aged bloke, living happily with a woman from the Shires. My main protagonist is a copper haired, green-eyed woman of twenty years of age, in love with a Greek hero. A little different, then. What we have in common probably comes down to determination, and never giving up when there is something we need or want or must find. I'm closer, in many ways, to the character of Merlin (not the Arthurian Merlin) in my three books of The Merlin Codex.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

RH: I'm into archeology. That certainly influences my work. And I love film, the 60s films especially. Spaghetti Westerns especially! I imagine I'm influenced. But to be truthful, I'm not a hobby man. No time. I only have one stamp in my collection, and I will soon have to use it, even though it's second class.

FT: Where do you get your idea's from?

RH: I was born, I suppose, with the capacity to find them. It's all I can think to say. People helped me along the way. Memory of other generations, and reading of times past, is a wonderful way to think of new situations for what has been common life for many thousands of years. And will continue to be so.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

RH: Writer's pause. Not block. The world is there, but sometimes the words aren't. I don't try to overcome it. When it happens, I trust to the kindness of strangers. And I talk a lot. And I trust to my own self-confidence that it always comes back.

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?

RH: I write at civilised and uncivilised times, according to how I feel, and Sarah tolerates it, but gets concerned about me, because when I'm writing at four o'clock in the morning, I'm either producing heavy or humerous poetry (check out Avilion for the former) or prose shyte (always abandoned, but often an indicator of a direction I need to take when the hour is civilised.) I work best in the afternoon and at night.

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?

RH: Far too much musical influence to go into here: Vaughan Williams, Mozart, Neil Young, Omnia, K.T.Tunstall, Dire Straits, The Stones, Bruckner, Sibelius.... I could go on for ages. Sometimes I play when I'm writing -- Vaughan Williams was always with me through Mythago Wood, Tunstall and Omnia in the middle of Avilion -- and sometimes I play to inspire me to write, and then silence rules. Depends on the mood. Give in to the impulse and see where it leads. Don't get into a pattern.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

RH: I didn't. It was exciting. When the ideas are rampant you don't have time to worry about details.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

RH: I think it's on the same menu! Though in my own case, certainly not as the vegetarian option.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

RH: It's the story of the two children of Guiwenneth of the Green, from Mythago Wood. Because the father is human and Guiwenneth is 'wildwood', the children are a mix of blood and sap. And as adults they are torn, both apart from each other, and within themselves. It's a tale of loss, and of love. It ends in Avalon (or Avilion). And there are good special effects!

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

RH: A Car Hire firm; Paul McAuley; my own; Maura McHugh (my website genius); Easyjet. Well: you did ask.

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

RH: Writing classes?? Are you kidding? Reading glasses, yes. But writing classes?? Who needs them? I forget who it was -- maybe Gore Vidal, or John Updike -- who was asked to teach a writing class. He sat down in front of the students and said, "Hands up who wants to be a writer." Everyone put up their hands. "Then fuck off and write, and don't waste my time." And he got up and left.

I've done workshops (not teaching), but more for socialising than anything else, though there is one exception, which I've often written about.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

RH: I pasted all rejection notes on my wall, as a reminder that not everything works. I threw them all away, eventually, except for a note from Ed Ferman, at Fantasy&Science Fiction, who wrote, as he rejected a story (1967): "Almost made it. Try Mike Moorcock at New Worlds." So I did. And Mike wrote back, "Not bad. Try Ed Ferman at Fantasy& Science Fiction." It was then that I grasped that writing is the task, and representing it widely is the game.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

RH: The same thing. The world you enter with delight; and the world you have to leave. And the comfort and loss of some of the people who have stepped into the dream.

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