28 April 2009 0 Comments

The Writing Life: Warwick Collins


The riskiest thing for a writer to do is to try to enter the head of a great genius by making that genius the narrator of a novel. Why? Because if you aren’t a genius of at least similar proportions, it won’t ring true. Think of the tedious melodrama that passed for the life of Michelangelo in “The Agony and the Ecstasy”. When that genius is the greatest writer of all time, the risk to our present writer increases proportionally. Warwick Collins, a British novelist and poet, took that chance when he made William Shakespeare the narrator of his novel The Sonnets. But it was worth it, because Warwick succeeded and The Sonnets is by far the most beautiful novel of recent years. It’s also an astonishing examination of why a writer writes and of how a literary work can change along with the life and loves of the writer. That makes Warwick the perfect author to answer the questions posed here in The Writing Life. He has some surprising ideas.

How long did it take you to get published?

I was fortunate that my first book, a sailing thriller called Challenge, was bid for by eight publishers. It was eventually published by Pan/Macmillan

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I don’t know any books on writing that I would recommend. The best way to learn about writing, I suspect, is to read as much good literature as one can.

What’s a typical writing day?

I’m one of those annoying people who feel fresh when they wake up, so I try to put in a minimum of one and a half hours before breakfast. If I feel up to it, I’ll return at various stages in the day. But I find writing is quite a nervous and energy-sapping process, and often I find that after my morning efforts I need the rest of the day to recover and be ready for the next early morning attempt on the blank screen.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

My most recent novel The Sonnets is an attempt to describe Shakespeare’s life from 1592-4, the years in which the London theatres were closed by threat of plague, and the 29-year-old Shakespeare was forced back on his own resources. He was fortunate to find a patron in the young Earl of Southampton. Those were the years in which many of the other playwrights died of violence (like Marlowe, killed in suspicious circumstances in a pub or Kyd, put on the rack) or of poverty, like Greene. Shakespeare emerged from those turbulent times to become the leading playwright on the Elizabethan stage. During those plague years, too, it is widely believed that Shakespeare wrote the bulk of his great sonnet sequence. I’ve integrated 32 full length sonnets into the text of my novel. I also added two “imitation” sonnets – both carefully flagged up as imitations, by the way. It was fascinating attempting to compose those imitation sonnets, and I think it helped me to gain an insight into the way sonnets are constructed, and how the very tightly defined form imposes on the content.

How much of what you do is formula dictated by the genre within which you write, and how much is as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

So far I’ve always been criticized by UK and American corporate publishers for NOT writing to a formula and for constantly changing both the subject matter and the style with which it is approached.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

For prose, Cormac McCarthy; for dialogue, Elmore Leonard.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

Philip Pullman, for His Dark Materials trilogy.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

I thoroughly recommend writing the first draft of the book before one does detailed research. This appears the wrong way round, but I believe it is still vastly more effective. Knowing the subject matter of the novel greatly narrows the research area, and the result is that the research in that area can be highly focused and detailed. The Rationalist and The Marriage of Souls were both set in the eighteenth century, about which I knew very little. I could have spent years reading up about the eighteenth century and only used a fraction of my laboriously acquired knowledge in the novels. But, for example, once I knew that Silas Grange, the protagonist, was a physician of “modern” outlook (for the times), I could research the area of medical practice in far greater depth than otherwise would have been the case, and virtually all of it was useful.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

A number of writers I have talked with are inspired by people whom they’ve met. In my own case, I get interested in an idea first, and after that it’s more a matter of trying to build up a character from the circumstances. In the case of The Rationalist, for example, some of the few things I did know about the eighteenth century were that it was a time of loss of religious faith, of the rise of science, and the loosening of sexual mores – in that way a reflection of our own times. It seemed interesting to me if Grange had elements of a modern scientist in his character, was perhaps a touch obsessive, pragmatic, rational, thorough, and if the femme fatale who brought him down, Mrs Celia Quill, was something of a proto-feminist.

What’s your experience with being translated?

So far pretty good. I’ve been fortunate that my foreign language publishers have chosen good translators.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

I have lived mostly off my writing for about 20 years, but I’m unusual in that most of my income has come from foreign language translation/publication, and from occasional forays into screenwriting.

How many books did you write before you were published?

My first published work was a series of poems published in the magazine Encounter. I wrote two novels before Challenge was published. They both seem to me now to be somewhat juvenile, and I would have no interest in either of them being published.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

During a tour of Germany for the German edition of my novel Gents, my publisher was based in Munich. Gents is a novel about three immigrant West Indians who run a urinal in London, and spend much time trying to suppress the “cottaging” (sexual activity between men) which goes on in the cubicles. Each of the West Indian main characters is religious and something of a family man, too, so this background activity is somewhat shocking to them. Although I am not gay myself, Gents was fortunate to receive favorable reviews from the gay press, and from West Indian reviewers. I don’t know whether my German publisher, a leading feminist, was being mischievous, but while on book tour she booked me in at a famous gay hotel in Munich. That was a very interesting experience.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

The weirdest idea I have had for a book was Gents, and I did publish it, and am glad that I did.

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