In 1951 while writing the first draft of East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote a letter a day to his editor Pascal Covici. It gives an insight into his thought processes, as he is actually writing the book. In one entry he said this:

It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling.

pencil pencils stationary equipment

Photo by Lisa Fotios on

On March 23rd Good Friday Steinbeck was clearly obsessed not with plot or character but his pencils. 

You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good one’s but never the perfect one.  And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is alright one day is no good another day. For example yesterday I used a special pencil, soft and fine, and it floated over the paper most wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper.

He goes on to say he has three types of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Then he says:

I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.

As delicate as a rose petal – how lovely! One day stabbing and  breaking and one day soft and delicate. 

When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird (his children) get them.

Oh, and how he loves his electric pencil sharpener:

I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day … by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out. 

As a writer, it is all too easy to fetishize the tools of your trade and indulge in magical thinking along the lines of:

“If only I had that beautiful note book/pen/pencil/cabin in the wood/tree house/house by the sea/lake/Lake Como actually, No, make that a palazzo in Venice/ oh no wait what about mountains? Actually just give me a garden, any garden.” Then I would write a masterpiece.

Looking out onto the street, outside my window I’m currently looking at a smashed TV screen and some plastic bottles rolling in the gutter. Usually I’m also looking at the backs of BT engineers fiddling with wires in those green street cabinets. I worry about their knees. The overground part of the District Line is about 15 meters away. I live on a main road. Someone is usually drilling somewhere very loudly along the road. This is where I’ve written all my books.

There’s the odd occasion when I long for a house with a sea view. When it was 35 degrees for a few days in a row this summer and they were tarmacking the road directly outside, the noise and the heat were such that I got to thinking about where I would live if I won the lottery – Iceland came to mind – but that’s rare. I write where I live like most writers, for better or worse.

And I’m sure you realise that I’d never do anything as crass as buy certain types of pencils thinking they might turn me into a Nobel Prize winner. Oh, no…

Whoops, I’m definitely feeling the metal here! One for the kiddies I think…

Steinbeck used Blackwing pencils and if you’d like to take a look at their very desirable website here it is. They even produced some lovely purple ones last month in honour of the passing of the 19th Amendment and women getting the vote in America on August 18th 1920.

What are the tools of your trade? Do you have a favourite?

JOHN LE CARRÉ – still an angry young man

Off last night to see an evening with John le Carré who has a new book out, A Legacy of Spies, which signals the return of George Smiley, the spymaster who has appeared in many of his novels. Part of the purpose of the evening was to raise funds for Médecin Sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors without Borders), a medical charity which works in war zones, and an organization that le Carré is devoted to. A short film told us that MSF had treated 504,500 men women and children in the crisis in Yemen.

le carre

The evening involved several short films in which actors, directors, and screenwriters who have worked on adaptations of le Carré’s books talked about their experiences. The people included Michael Jayston, (Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on TV), Simon Russell Beale who played Smiley in the Radio 4 adaptations of le Carré’s books and Tim Hiddleston and Olivia Colman, who had played characters in TV adaptation of The Night Manager.

Of Smiley, Simon R-B, who has played him most, albeit on radio, described his intense melancholia. Hiddleston commented on Smiley’s quiet heroism. When asked what he might ask Smiley if he came face to face with him Simon R-B said he’d run away from him. He wouldn’t ask him anything because he was so intimidatingly clever.

First le Carré gave an hour long lecture then after an interval he was interviewed by Jon Snow of Channel 4 news and there was a Q&A.


The origins of Smiley was a character called John Bingham who le Carré worked with in section F4 of MI5. This was before he went and worked for MI6, convivially known by MI5 as ‘those shits across the park.’ Bingham had run double agents during the Second World War and posed as a German officer. He was also a thriller writer. From Bingham came some aspects of the physical Smiley – the nakedness of his face when he took off his glasses and the habit he had of polishing his glasses with the end of his tie. Bingham was an aristocrat, an Irish peer, the 7th Baron Clanmorris, and le Carré said that he couldn’t make Smiley an aristocrat, that wouldn’t have done at all, so he made his wife Lady Anne one instead. He said that Bingham was a proxy father figure and mentor to the younger spies in his section.

He went on to discuss the various actors who had played Smiley on film and TV: Rupert Davies, James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman. Mason actually played a character called Dobbs in The Deadly Affair (based on the book Call for the Dead) because the Americans did not like the name Smiley. He said that the filming of the character involved a certain personal loss for him of the Smiley of his imagination because the character was made physical but that of course the upside was that his work reached a much wider audience.

One of the things he loved about Guinness’s performance was that the enigma of Smiley was kept in tact for le Carré as well. He told a very funny story about doing a cover shoot for a Sunday magazine cover with Denholm Elliott on the set of A Murder of Quality, which they they were filming in a school. They were standing opposite each other with their noses only a few inches apart while they were being photographed. Elliott repeated range of obscene barrack room jokes throughout the shoot which le Carré ignored. Later Elliott asked him what he was doing on the set and le Carré said, ‘Well, I’m the writer.’ ‘The writer?’ ‘Yes, the writer of the book’, and Elliott said ‘Oh, I thought you were the headmaster.’

At one point they considered Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army for the part of Smiley and he did a screen test. Le Carré said Lowe did it beautifully but the trouble was that because of the associations they all had with Captain Mainwaring they could not stop laughing when they saw it. He said that Gary Oldman (in the film of TTSS) brought a heterosexual passion to the part. He compared him to Guinness describing the scene where Guinness embraces Lady Anne and saying he could not watch it without shuddering and thinking, ‘Oh, don’t do that Alec.’

At the end he read out an imaginary letter from a Daily Telegraph reader complaining that he couldn’t bring Smiley back because if one stayed true to the books Smiley would be 104 (or thereabouts). He countered this by saying that it was poetic license. Smiley was alive in his imagination and he was alive so why not? Of course his millions of fans will feel exactly the same.

A Legacy of Spies by [Carré, John le]


Jon Snow began by asking him about his father. Le Carré had discovered that his father, who was a con-man and a crook, had a Stasi (East German secret service) file and it appeared to indicate that he was an illegal arms dealer. He said that the Stasi had gone to the trouble of sending spies to his father’s office in Jermyn Street and marking where the safe was and also where the telex machine was.

Q. Would you recommend the secret service as a career?

He said if you were good at maths they’d send you to Cheltenham. If you were a seducer, befriender and liar you’d be good for MI6, although in the present climate you should think about the second half of your career/life because you might not have one.

Q. Do you think the US has lost its senses?

He said that what was happening in America was ‘truly, seriously bad’, that the stages Trump was going through – the fake news, and the assaults on the justice system were the same as those during the rise of fascism in the thirties in Japan, Spain and Germany. That kind of behaviour was infectious and toxic and he cited the use of the expression ‘fake news’ by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar in dismissing the reporting on the assaults on the Rohingya muslims who are fleeing into Bangladesh.

Q. Which of your own characters do you most relate to?

He said that was Peter Guillam who works for Smiley and reappears in A Legacy of Spies. JS said I thought so.

Q. Was Graham Greene an influence?

Yes, his early works were. He had read them in his adolescence and that Greene gave a very generous quote for his book The Spy who came in from the Cold. However he said that the big difference between Greene and himself was that Greene had God in his books and there was no God in his own books. He also said that Greene had a dotty political streak and flirted with communism but he said he was hypnotic to meet. Maurice Oldfield head of MI6  said that Greene was a bad spy because he embellished his reports.

Q. On his writing methods.

He talked about the importance of making notes as soon as possible, even when he was drunk. As an example he said on your first day in Moscow what you notice is the smell of Russian petrol by the second day you’ve got used to it and you  won’t register it anymore. He writes long hand. He said this produces a lot of paper and that when the Bodleian Library  (to whom he was giving his paper) came and saw how many there were they had a fit. He starts with very little plot but always has the final frame in his mind and an idea of what he wants the audience to feel at that point. His wife reads what he writes and he is influenced by her response especially if there is a deafening silence. He talked about a mutual understanding between them about his work. He writes every day.

He was asked by Jon Snow about his relationship to MSF and le Carré said that he had been struck by their courage and devotion and Jon Snow said that they were the most trustworthy organization for journalists reporting from war zones.

There was a very poignant moment when le Carré asked Snow how he endured the human suffering he comes across in his reporting. He himself had been very effected by the research he does for his books, especially by seeing the effect of Big Pharma in Kenya and Sudan, the basis of his book The Constant Gardener.

I came away from the event thinking that le Carré is a man who cares passionately about the world. Olivia Colman described him as being, ‘Everything you would hope he would be.’ A beautiful description that rang absolutely true. Peter Straughan who wrote the screenplay for the film of TTSS said le Carré was ‘still an angry young man … like Orwell always in opposition’. Angry certainly but also erudite, charming, witty and with a passionate sense of injustice. He’s certainly not going gentle into that good night. What more could you ask for from a novelist? We are lucky to have him.

I’m off to buy A Legacy of Spies. There are signed first editions in Foyles on the Charing Cross Road but they’ll probably be gone by the time I get there.*

If you want to take a look at the work that MSF do and donate here’s the link:

  • They were!



tiger and morning gloryWhat can I say? Every desk should have a tiger. He isn’t strictly on my desk. He hovers over it in a benign sort of way. I bought him from a wonderful shop, sadly no longer in existence, that was called Neal Street East, in Covent Garden. Oh, how I loved it! It has now been replaced by an Italian shoe shop. I like the way the tiger moves around in the breeze. I like the way he watches over my writing. He has a small sticker on his back that says he was made in Thailand. I have him there to remind me to have courage. I mean a tiger isn’t frightened of anything much, is it? I particularly like the fact he has articulated paws and jaw. When I’m feeling particularly stressed I open his jaws wide. Andy Murray used to do that during his matches and I presume it reduces tension.

I’m not quite sure how this morning glory thing is going to pan out though. I should have started these seeds off much earlier. I found an old packet and was feeling a little stuck and threw them in a pot and thought nothing would happen. But then it did!  They all germinated which was exciting but they like to climb and we have no outside space so I thought I’d see if they’ll climb up my tiger. I’m not sure how he feels about it though. When I was a very small child my mother grew morning glories one summer and each morning there’d be a competition between me and my sisters to guess the number of flowers that had bloomed. The winner got a sixpence. It was very hard to guess accurately.

geraniums and tigerI work by a window which looks out onto the street. When I want to concentrate I have the blind down but when I don’t I have it up and then I look out onto geraniums, motorbikes, cars and I get to listen to people’s conversations – neighbours bumping into each other, a man explaining how he goes all the way to Kingston for his shopping because it has an Aldi, the number bus he gets, the fact that he had fallen down and everyone had rushed to pick him up. People are very kind, he says. In a city like London where there are so many people and they are often under a great deal of pressure, it is good to hear things like that. We all want to hear that if we fall down we will be picked up.

Basically, it’s all about growth and courage, isn’t it? I’ll let you know how the morning glories pan out.

BODLEIAN SHOP – OXFORD (with photos!)

I spent the day in Oxford a while ago doing a short interview at Radio Oxford about my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN. It went very well in the sense that I did not make a complete idiot of myself and kept talking. Nick Piercey was lovely but even so the levels of adrenaline these things bring out in me are akin to the time I jumped out of a plane with a parachute on my back. So the relief of it being over meant that I then ran amok in the Bodleian shop in the Broad. A shameful example of behaving like a tourist in the town of my birth.

First up this lovely bar of chocolate. I actually prefer dark, dark chocolate preferably 85% but I couldn’t resist this one for obvious reasons. Next time anyone asks me about WRITER’S BLOCK I will say, ‘Oh, it’s delicious. It’s luxurious … I wish it was darker but I eat it whenever I can …’


Is there any chocolate left in it do you think?

I like writing related consumables and have come across WRITER’S TEARS (not sold in the Bodleian shop) which is a whiskey. The packaging makes the tear look rather cheerful. It would be nice if there was only one and it was this lovely orange colour. Interesting how anything writing related seems to be about the downsides rather than the upsides. I wonder why that is?


Fancy some writer’s tears. No neither do I!

Second up from the shop this postcard of the oath you have to swear when joining the Bodleian. I must have sworn this myself a long time ago but have absolutely no recollection of doing so. I particularly like the bit about not setting fires and it’s interesting to see the word ‘kindle’ in there.


I swore this a while ago. I like the presence of the word ‘kindle’ here.


Third, a selection of beautiful bookmarks and also a turquoise leather notebook. Along with having a bad 85% chocolate habit I also have a very bad stationery habit. I couldn’t resist this one. Nostalgia, the memories of childhood home – the usual sentimental guff I’m afraid. When will I realise that a beautiful notebook is not going to make it all any easier. Probably when I’m laid out in my coffin.



Finally books. I’ve been doing a bit of research on the early days of the Bodleian and both these were perfect.


So there we are. The website says, “Take a treasure home today!” Well, I did didn’t I? A sack load of the stuff!


Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means: A Biography by [King, Brendan]How much does the life of a writer you love interest you? This is what I’ve been wondering as I’ve read the biography of Beryl Bainbridge, Love by All Sorts of Means, by Brendan King. In my case it turns out a great deal. I love her writing and I worked for her publisher Gerald Duckworth for a while. In fact I was working in the warehouse when her book on Scott’s doomed expedition to Antarctica Birthday Boys came in. It was the most copies of one title that I ever packed up and sent out to the bookshops and I particularly liked the photo on the cover of the men wearing  their  big furry mittens.

Brendan King worked for Bainbridge for many years but this is no hagiography. What he delivers here is a measured and psychologically astute  assessment of her and along the way he displays considerable sensitivity to her children, especially with regard to the effects of her drinking and her affairs, those known about and those kept secret (until relatively recently).

Bainbridge was a publicist’s dream. There was the stuffed buffalo in the hall and the hole in the ceiling from when her mother-in-law, Nora, tried to shoot her. There was the shop dummy called Neville that she placed in the window to make people think there was a man in the house. The expression one-off is overused but it seems a more than usually apt description of Bainbridge. She was a genuine eccentric and eccentricity makes good copy. And she was also a fantastic, original writer and the fact that she never won the Booker, despite being nominated five times, seems more and more of a disgrace as each year passes.

If you’re interested to know who the sweet William in  Sweet William was or who the character of Scurra in Every Man For Himself was based on you will find it all here. Along with what made her publisher Colin Haycraft kick the draft of Watson’s Apology across the floor. Interestingly, King suggests that one of the reasons Bainbridge turned to historical fiction and away from writing which mined her own life, was because the complexities of her private life were such that she did not feel she could use that as material in her fiction any more.

In his excellent introduction King is very good on the subject of memory especially when it comes to fiction writers:

“Her interviews and her written memoirs are always brilliant, full of memorable quotes and anecdotes, but that was partly because she was never hampered by the feeling that she had to be literally accurate about the facts when recounting them.”

A polite way of stating that she had no compunction in making things up!

“All memory is fiction, which is why autobiographical accounts and historical ones, for that matter are notoriously inaccurate. We censor memories by recalling only those fragments we wish to remember.”

King’s job as her biographer is sorting the fibs from the facts and he does a very thorough job of it.

There is a lot here which is amusing including an assessment of her by the psychotherapist Charles Rycroft as being, ‘a hysteric with psychopathic tendencies.’

There is also hope for novelists who have been on the receiving end of bad reviews:

“No amount of mannered writing – and there is quite a lot of it – can conceal that Miss Bainbridge hasn’t much to say.” SUNDAY TELEGRAPH on A WEEKEND WITH CLAUDE

To The Hampstead and Highgate Express she stated:

“I’ve got some really terrible reviews, so I’ve just given up reading them.”

And yet she survived and thrived.

After reading this biography I was left with the impression that it is probably best never to trust what comes out of a writer’s mouth about themselves. If you want the truth you’re more likely to get it from their fiction.The act of  writing is exposure enough. When confronted with the perils of publicity what writer isn’t going to reach for the invisibility cloak and puff a bit of smoke in the air or hide behind their stuffed buffalo while pointing at a bullet hole.

Nowadays one wonders if someone like Beryl would have broken through. You can’t imagine her synopsis and three chapters would have made it out of any agent’s slush pile, not with her spelling. King suggests she was probably dyslexic.

Here is one of my favourite examples, a note typed to a friend when she was a bit pissed after a row with one of her lovers.

“I have had a violent argument. Surprise – he takes off his bliddy galoshes and lies down. Alright if he’s paying the bills, but wot a romantic set up, if he is my sooter. I have sed his hair cut is losey . . . andd I will neffer wash his underdrawers, not if he is paralised. He ses I have holes in my jumpers. But I sed I am an orther, and they have holes.”

This book comes highly recommended. It’s well written,  emotionally intelligent and fair minded in dealing with her highly complex private life. I should imagine that it’s going to appear on a great many of the lists suggesting books to buy as presents at Christmas. An extraordinary woman and a magnificent writer, Bainbridge has been well served by this sensitive and entertaining biography. Any writer out there wondering who might write their biography should give King a call. Now I’m off to buy a buffalo.

How about you? Are you interested in the lives of the authors you admire or do you find it an irrelevant and irritating distraction?


I was working for the publisher Gerald Duckworth in the 1990s packing up books in their warehouse. I had dropped out of law, having spent two very unhappy years as an articled clerk in a city firm and started working for Duckworth when the company moved from the Old Piano Factory in Camden Town to Hoxton Square. They did their own distribution at that time and so  they needed people to shift the books. My sister was an editor and director of the company and I was hired as casual labour along with the brother-in-law of the sales director, a resting actor. I had not expected to have a job there for more than a week or so but then hard on the heels of the move Duckworth bought up Bristol Classical Press and more stock started arriving. In the end I worked there for about six years between 1990 and 1996. This wasn’t unusual at Duckworth which had a habit of retaining its staff for extremely long periods of time. The obvious reason being that it was an exceptionally nice place to work.

Colin Haycraft - Maverick Publisher.

Colin Haycraft – Maverick Publisher.

It was not an easy time. The company, to coin a phrase from Sean O’Casey, was, through much of the period I worked there, in a ‘terrible state o’ chassis’ (at boardroom level, anyway) as Colin Haycraft, the owner of the company struggled to hold on to the company he had owned since 1968.

Despite the ‘noise of distant thunder’ I loved my job. Duckworth’s list was hilariously eclectic, ranging from The History of the Vlachs ( I don’t think I ever did quite grasp who they were) to The History of the British Pig (excellent photos and illustrations). Along with these there was an illustrious philosophy and classics list, which included books by A.C. Grayling and Michael Dummett. There was also of course fiction represented by Beryl Bainbridge and Alice Thomas Ellis. The Birthday Boys was published when I was there and it was probably the most copies of a single title that I ever packed up and sent out.

At that point Hoxton was not the hipster paradise it has become; it was grim and rough. Duckworth’s offices are now occupied by the art gallery The White Cube but before Duckworth moved in the building had been a sweatshop and the places where the plugs for the sewing machines had been were visible in the floor. The famous gay club The London Apprentice was on the corner of the square and it was boarded up with the kind of metal shutters that made you think it was derelict. This was because it was the frequent focus of homophobic attacks. A sign of how things have changed in the area is that now the places getting attacked are those selling expensive cereals!

I loved the job not just because of the entertaining list but also because I was much more suited to working for a small independent publisher than working in the law. My confidence had taken a bashing in the city but at Duckworth I began to relax and feel capable, liked and valued. Having felt depressed and directionless I found the physical work was good for me. I felt proud to be working there. There was something else as well that I did not talk about much. I dreamed of  being a writer. At least now I was working with books albeit manhandling them rather than writing them. It seemed like a small step in the right direction.

An old fashioned but rather effective cover!

Colin Haycraft was the first to publish Oliver Sacks’ book, Awakenings (1973) after the book had been turned down by Faber and Faber. At that time Sacks was not the illustrious world famous author he later became. He had published one book in America on Migraine.  In an affectionate essay he wrote after Colin died contained in the book Colin Haycraft 1929-1994 Maverick Publisher, Sacks described him as his ‘midwife and unmuddler’. As sweet a description of being edited as you’re ever likely to come across.

‘If it had not been for him Awakenings I think would not have been finished, much less published.’

‘But it was not just unmuddling that I demanded of Colin at this time, it was emotional support when I was blocked or when my mood or confidence sagged, as they did almost to the point of collapse.’

Then in the final month of working on the book Sacks’ mother died and

‘Colin became a mother for me as well as a midwife.’

Colin may have mothered him but at a certain point like all good mothers he put his foot down. This was after Sacks, back in America, sent him so many footnotes that they came to three times the length of the original book. Colin told him he could keep 12 and then allowed him to keep 82 including one of his own which was a pun on godness, goodness and guinness! Colin also refused to let him see the page proofs because Sacks had made so many changes to the galleys he knew what would happen if he did.

Colin went  on to publish two more of Sacks’ books: A Leg to Stand On (1984) and The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985). I didn’t know much about Sacks but I went to the film of Awakenings when it came out in 1990 and found it very moving. The hardback of Awakenings was out of print by then and the paperback rights had been sold so unfortunately Duckworth didn’t benefit from the publicity generated by the film. I have a hazy memory of sending out the odd hardback copy of ‘Leg’ at the time but no recollection of ‘Hat.’

One day Colin came down into the warehouse with a pile of notebooks and an address label.  ‘New York,’ he said and went to make himself some coffee. They were Oliver Sacks’ notebooks and they were to be sent back to him in America. I presume now that Colin was doing some ‘housekeeping’ as it was never quite clear whether the company was going to survive or not. I opened the notebooks and flicked through them. An overwhelming desire to steal them came over me. I can’t remember anything that I read there. I seem to remember that the notebooks related to ‘Hat’ but I could be wrong. The handwriting was hard to decipher, the content chaotic and poetic; everything I imagined writers’ notebooks ought to be like. It crossed my mind that Sacks would never notice if one went missing. Or two? Who knew how long Colin had held onto these anyway? I wrestled with my conscience. Then I wrapped them all up securely and sent them off first class airmail.

That moment of wanting to steal them has remained with me. Looking back I think it was an exact reflection of how strongly I wanted to be a writer. Somewhere in these notebooks I imagined was the key to how it was done. If I had one of them then maybe just maybe some of that magic would rub off on me and like a benign genie from Aladdin’s lamp Oliver Sacks would appear and reassure me that I had what it took to be what I so desperately wanted to be.

If only life were like that. In the end I had my own rather simple awakening – that working with books is not the same as writing them. I did eventually become a published writer about ten years later. My first crime novel, Bloodless Shadow, was published in 2003 and six other books have followed. But sometimes I look back with a pang of regret to the moment I had Oliver Sacks’ notebooks in my hands. We all know how easily things can get lost in the post.


I came across this great quotation over the weekend by Colm Tóibín, a writer I love. He’s just won the Hawthornden Prize for literature:

“You can do anything you like as a novelist at the level of the sentence but what you can’t control is the nervous system of the book, its emotional connection. The only person who can do that is the reader.”

I love the idea of a book having a nervous system but does the reader really control it? As a reader or a writer what do you think?



Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

I’ve always loved the Paris Review interviews with writers. In depth interviews asking writers about their writing lives. It’s a bit like In the Actors Studio but for authors. However, I imagine that Julian Jebb must have felt at least a degree of trepidation at the thought of interviewing Evelyn Waugh, which he did for the Review in 1962. Waugh was not a man, Jebb probably suspected, who would take kindly to a psychological approach of any kind. Waugh’s interview with Jebb, apart from being one of the shortest, has one of the funniest introductions. So I thought I’d do a quick overview of the interview and see if any tips could be gleaned from a man, who is viewed by many as one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century.

Waugh met Jebb at the Hyde Park Hotel in London at three in the afternoon, wearing a black Homburg hat and heavy overcoat. The interview was to take place in Waugh’s own hotel room. Once in the room Waugh moaned under his breath, ‘The horrors of London life! The horrors of London life!’ and then went into the bathroom and changed into a pair of white pyjamas. From the bathroom, he asked Jebb if he smoked and when Jebb said he was smoking a cigarette at that moment Waugh said, ‘I think cigarettes are rather squalid in the bedroom. Wouldn’t you rather smoke a cigar?’ Poor Jebb! Then after offering Jebb a cigar, Waugh climbed into bed and they got down to the interview or ‘inquisition’ as Waugh called it. Here are some of the details:

  • Waugh wrote his first piece of fiction at the age of 7. It was called The Curse of the Horse Race;
  • After coming down from Oxford without a degree he tried to be a painter but ‘I failed as I had neither the talent nor the application – I didn’t have the moral qualities.’
  • Of his hugely successful book Vile Bodies he says, ‘It was a bad book… It was secondhand too. I cribbed much of the scene at customs from Firbank’;
  • His early novels took 6 weeks to write including revisions;
  • On Brideshead Revisited:  ‘rich in evocative description – gluttonous writing.’
  • On characters: ‘There are the protagonists and there are characters who are furniture. One gives only one aspect of the furniture… I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me;
  • On influences: ‘P.G.Wodehouse affected my style directly’. On Hemingway: ‘I admire the way he made drunk people talk’;
  • On experimentation: ‘Experiment! God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of writers like Joyce. He starts off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic’;
  • On writing: ‘I don’t find it easy. You see there are always words going round in my head; some people think in pictures, some in ideas. I think entirely in words. By the time I come to stick my pen in my ink pot these words have reached a stage of order which is fairly presentable’;
  • On writers he reads for pleasure: Anthony Powell, Ronald Knox and Erle Stanley Gardner (author of Perry Mason);
  • On being asked why he had never written a sympathetic or even full-scale portrait of a working class character: ‘I don’t know them and I’m not interested in them’;
  • His final statement: ‘I have done all I could. I have done my best’.

Waugh was right-wing, reactionary and snobbish; he also wrote some of the most beautiful prose you could ever hope to read. And many of his books, Scoop for example, are ‘laugh out loud’ funny.

Jebb was generous about Waugh. Having admitted the interview was not ‘in depth’, he explains that ‘Mr Waugh did not lend himself either as a writer or a man, to the forms of delicate psychological probing and self-analysis which are characteristic of many other interviews’.  However he also states that Waugh was, ‘consistently helpful, attentive, and courteous during the three hours I spent with him’.

As well as offering him that big fat cigar.

So not many tips here. I wonder if writing came so easily to Waugh (despite what he says) that he was superstitious about looking at the process in any depth at all. Maybe he took the approach ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ which is a perfectly valid position to occupy but not one that delivers a particularly interesting interview. I wonder why he agreed to the interview at all. Maybe he was flattered.

Perhaps the most useful tip is how to wrong-foot an interviewer. So now you know it involves:

  • a London hotel room
  • a pair of white pyjamas
  • a big fat cigar.

Do you like Evelyn Waugh? If so what’s your favourite book?


10 Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

10 Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham

These days the writer Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) is best known for his novel Of Human Bondage and of course his short stories but back in the day he was also known as a prolific and immensely successful playwright and adaptor of his own works for Hollywood. So what in his opinion were the qualities that made up a good novel?

  1. A widely interesting theme of enduring interest;
  2. The story should be coherent and persuasive. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end and the end should be the natural consequence of the beginning;
  3. Episodes (i.e. the things that happen) should have probability and should not only develop the theme but grow out of the story;
  4. The characters should be observed with individuality and their actions should proceed from their characters
  5. Characters should be interesting and their speech should be distinct;
  6. Dialogue should: a) characterise the speaker and b) advance the story;
  7. Narrative passages should be (a) vivid, (b) to the point, (c) no longer than is necessary;
  8. Writing should be simple enough to be read with ease and ‘the manner should fit the matter as a well-cut shoe fits a shapely foot’;
  9. It should be entertaining and the more intelligent the entertainment a novel offers, the better it is;
  10. The last point is the essential quality without which no other quality avails.

If the unlikelihood of juggling all of the above at the same time has depressed you or if you are a modernist and have started tearing your hair out in a strictly non-linear and stream-of-consciousness  sort of way, hope is at hand :

There is a faultiness in the form (of the novel) that renders perfection impossible.

Well, thank god for that!

No novel is perfect.


Because a novel takes so long to write that the author’s inventiveness will sometimes fail (no kidding) and then he falls back on dogged industry and general competence.

Well, since flights of genius have never been my thing, I, for one, say let’s raise a glass to dogged industry and general competence. I wonder what he’d have made of Umbrella by Will Self. Not much is my guess.

Finally, I can’t resist quoting what he has to say on sex scenes.

Whenever they (novelists) feel that something must be done to sustain the readers flagging interest, they cause their characters to indulge in copulation. I am not sure they are well advised. Of sexual intercourse Lord Chesterfield said that the pleasure was momentary, the position ridiculous and the expense damnable… there is a monotony about the act which renders the reiterated narration of it excessively tedious.

So there we are. You can’t even use sex scenes to get you out of trouble. You might as well give up now. I am going to make myself another cup of tea, stare out of the window at the scaffolders and hope that a feeling of dogged industry and general competence overwhelms me. I’ll let you know how it goes.


My typewriter did not look like this beauty!

Unfortunately my typewriter did not look anything like this old beauty!

I came to writing relatively late in life. I was in my twenties before I even dared articulate to myself that was what my dream was. I sat on my bed looking at a clapped out old electric typewriter on the other side of the room and feeling this huge space between me and it. It seemed impossible. The only thing occupying the space at that time was my longing to be a writer.

But how to begin?

In the end I did three things:

1.  I did a writing course taught by Sahera Chohan* and Nigel Watts;

2. I did The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron with my friend, Francesca Howard*;

3. I began to read books on writing and creativity in general.

 * See my blog roll for their inspiring blogs.

Books on writing

Books on writing…

The first book I read was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Still one of my favourites. It was Francesca who suggested doing The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She wanted to become a painter and I wanted to become a writer and she suggested we do the course together and talk on the phone weekly about how we’d got on. Without those weekly telephone calls I’m not sure I would have finished it. As I remember it, I was appalled at Week Four, the reading deprivation week, and extremely stroppy when it came to collages (which I loved doing when I got down to it) but at the end of it the seeds of hope and possibility were planted in me.

More books on writing

More books on writing…

I have read many other books over the years and I’ll give a list at the end of my favourites but one which I’m reading now and absolutely love is by Anne Bogart: A Director Prepares. Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. These are her chapter headings: Memory; Violence; Eroticism; Terror; Stereotype; Embarrassment; Resistance. It’s a brilliant inspiring book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. She uses examples from the world of theatre, painting, dance and literature.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

‘The saving grace in one’s work is love, trust and a sense of humour.’

‘Every creative act involves a leap into the void.’

Here she is on resistance:

Laziness and impatience are constant internal resistances and they are very personal. We are all lazy. We are all impatient. Neither are evil qualities; rather they are issues that we learn to handle properly…. Attitude is key. Naming something a problem engenders the wrong relationship to it… Try not to think of anything as a problem. Start with a forgiving attitude to laziness and impatience and cultivate a sense of humour about them both. And then trick them.’

To find out how to trick them buy the book!

And some more books on writing...

And some more books on writing…

When I look back, books played a crucial role in leading me across that room towards the typewriter, towards the moment when I put my hands on the keyboard and began to write. They play a crucial role in keeping me there. I continue to buy these books (71 and counting!) and I continue to explore the whole subject of creativity. I find it endlessly fascinating.

The questions I’m looking to have answered are how do other people do it – create? How do dancers dance, painters paint, actors act, writers write, singers sing, directors direct. How do they persist? How do they deal with setbacks? What can I learn from them?

Here, in no particular order, are twenty of my favourite books on writing and creativity.

1.Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood

2.Teach yourself Writing a Novel – Nigel Watts

3.The Courage to Write –  Ralph Keyes

4.The Writer’s Book of Hope – Ralph Keyes

5.Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg

6.Wild Mind – Natalie Goldberg

7.The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron

8.The Right to Write – Julia Cameron

9.On Writing – Stephen King

10.Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande

11.Writing for your Life – Deena Metzger

12. The Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard

13. The Paris Review Interviews – all volumes

14. The Master and his Emissary – Ian McGilchrist

15. The Gift – Lewis Hyde

16. Which Lie Did I Tell? – William Goldman

17. One Continuous Mistake – Gail Sher

18. Walking With Alligators – Susan Shaughnessy

19. If You Want To Write – Brenda Ueland

20. A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre – Anne Bogart

There’s also a book coming out in February 2015 called The Art of Creative Thinking written by Rod Judkins, a lecturer at St Martin’s School of Art, which looks very interesting.

Do you have a book which had a big effect on your creative process? Are there any books you would recommend? What do you think of my list?