You studied as an English undergraduate at Newcastle University, how did your time at the university shape your choices to go into your choices of career as an editor, consultant and author?
“I thought it was a great experience… I think that the course was great and I suppose I had some really quite inspirational lecturers – people who were quite a big influence on my writing.” More than this, as Arts editor for the Courier newspaper, he “spent a lot of time in the courier office. I sort of started out by writing out the odd music review here and there, and then got dragged in more and more and ended up as the arts editor, and it was sort of my second home. I don’t think I would be doing what I am doing today if it hadn’t been for that early experience? There was so much freedom in it – it brought me into contact with brilliant theatre, art, dance, music, books that I just wouldn’t have come across otherwise, and it complements the academic side of things. Having to get to grips with it was an education in itself and I got to meet some inspirational people.”
Did your time working as a writer and arts editor for the Courier lead to changes when you’re writing and reviewing your own work?
I think it helps when, now I’m working with an editor on my novel – I think having that professional experience editing really helps, as I can look at it quite critically – as an editor I don’t really like looking at my own work, but that experience of being in the newsroom of having someone look over your work and sort of tear it to shreds was a really good grounding for any sort of writing you do – kind of knocks the edges off as you can take a lot of criticism – it’s not personal!
Who kept inspiring you to write, what keeps you going?
I don’t want to spoil the novel, but I guess that it sometimes takes a bit of help from someone to take that creative leap and that’s where some of the best writing comes from is when people are taking that risk – and it is a risk, but when I remember some of the things I studied in my Undergraduate degree, one of them was Rousseau’s confessions – that was a massive risk for Rousseau! He was laying out the good, the bad, the ugly – there was a lot of ugly in there – and he made it worse, heading out to the cafes and just read. I love that risk taking you can make in literature, some of the risky things that other people have done in the past. My risk when compared is a very small one. There are other authors who I’ve been influenced by – Graham Swift, David Mitchell, the writer of Cloud Atlas – again, people who take risks with their narratives, anand whilst I’ve been writing the novel, my editor Nick kept on sending me books in the post to keep me going.
I remember I met an author, Robert Westall, who wrote The Machine Gunners, and it was the first time I realised that real people write books? It’s taken a long time for me to write this down, but if I hadn’t been writing short stories and poetry in the run up to that, I wouldn’t have got the publishing deal and wouldn’t have had the quality that it has now.
Do you have any particular daily routines in your writing process?
“I’d sit down on a daily basis and try to write 500 words – I might edit out the 500 words the next day, but I’d always sit and write 500 words. It’s easy to just sit and take a couple of days off, and then it’s very difficult to keep going, so you have to get into a routine of doing it.”
I didn’t have a plan, I might go for a walk or something during the day, I’d take some photos of a little village, a Cornish fishing village or something like that – that’d be my research, I’d go and sit down and talk to some local fishermen and ask them about their time fishing so I could pick up what life is really like out in the water, I’d go home and let it all sink in, and it was kind of an unconscious process of writing.
What was the best point and worst point of your writing process for this novel?
I think the lowest point was when I was writing about something quite personal, when I was asking whether what I was writing should be written down. My highest point was when I got the publishing deal – it wasn’t when I actually finishing the novel, it was when someone said “we like this enough to print it and get it out there to readers”! I hit points where it was more difficult, but whilst I’ve been writing the novel I’ve been doing a Masters’ degree, I’ve been writing academically about teaching about how children learn to read and write – I write all day, it’s kind of what I do.
Do you think you’ve responded to the reviews and praise that you’ve received, how has that affected your thoughts on what you’ve written?
I think you develop a thick skin when you’re a journalist? I think it’s also about the questions that you ask – there were a lot of questions I wanted to ask, it’s about being slightly unflinching and I think that’s what good journalism is, it doesn’t back down in the face of opposition and the journalists I enjoy is the ones that ask the difficult questions – the ones that are worth answering and I think the same about fiction – if you’re asking a difficult question, it’s probably the right question.
I’ve noticed a lot of imagery regarding the sea, and with the setting of a seaside town, I must ask, was your move to Cornwall a big influence on your writing?
I started writing before I moved to Cornwall, but it definitely has an influence on it – it’s kind of based around a few fishing villages I know, but it’s based on places I’ve been, including places I’ve visited in Newcastle, around the north Northumberland coast.
I’ve thought about the themes of your novel – exploration, isolation, voyage and discovery, as well as the sea – is this a novel of discovery, then?
Yeah, it’s about someone who has to really explore and question why he’s in this place and what’s brought him to this place. I think a lot of people do this through their lives, what they’re doing and where they really are. It’s definitely about exploring, digging through to the more uncomfortable parts, the places we really don’t want to go, maybe explore the boundaries – as I’ve been reading amazing texts since GCSE, since A Level, and a lot of the stuff that comes out – there are so many novels that are being published that – if you want to write one, you’ve got to do something that’s slightly different, that’s pushing the boundaries a bit, even if it’s not going to be as commercially viable. There’s definitely a role for literature that’s more experimental.