In our first interview with Rosie Garland we found out how she kept going using rituals to support her writing and overcome the fear of the blank page. She spoke about having to “hack out time for writing” amongst work and grown up responsibilities. Here we find out how she took steps to adjust the balance of her working and creative life, and get an insight into how she writes such amazing characters.
The work-writing balance
Rosie made the decision to go part time in her job, not to write novels specifically, but to shift the balance of her work life and creative life, which she felt was out of kilter. She describes her life as being a process of getting off the career ladder: decreasing the amount of time given over to conventional work and increasing opportunities for creativity.
“real life happened – time to get a sensible job and put creative self-indulgence away”
“When I was a kid I was always writing and had time to draw pictures, write poems, and create alternative universes. Then at the age of 18 ‘real’ life happened. Time to get a sensible job and put creative self-indulgence away. It may only have been a handful of years, yet it felt like a long sojourn away from what I really wanted to do. I realised that all that creativity I had as a kid was a vital part of my existence, not an add-on. What I was doing was moving away from it and denying its importance. Since my late 20s my life has been a slow process of going back to it, partly by taking part-time jobs that gave me time to think.”
Despite day jobs taking Rosie away from herself, she didn’t resent it: “I got gifts from work and I am very grateful for the things it has given me. I don’t think I would have been right being a full time writer back then. I needed to go and engage with the outside world and not stare at my navel.”
Writing is the process not the end
Like many writers, Rosie says she writes because she has to. She describes writing as being a process and uses a Zen proverb to illustrate. “If you meet the Buddha on the road – kill him.” I must admit to being rather puzzled by the idea of killing the Buddha, so Rosie explains.
“If you meet the Buddha on the road – kill him.”
“Rather than being literal, the proverb symbolises the creative ‘road’ I travel as a writer. The ‘Buddha’ could stand for some idealised faultless novel and therefore the end of needing to strive, grow, create… you get the picture. This deceptive Buddha suggests that I’ll reach some magical, perfect endpoint. That a magical endpoint exists. No it doesn’t. So I need to throw out that illusion and keep writing. There is no retiring from being writer.”
Character: it all starts with a question
The rituals Rosie previously talked about help open her up to ideas and characters. She said “Part of the process is to find ways to put myself in the way of characters, to make it easier for them to come to talk to me.” I was fascinated about this approach to developing character and asked her to tell me more.
“When I’m at the absolute beginning of developing a character it will often start as a question that niggles me. So for Abel [the central character in The Palace of Curiosities] the question in my head was – ‘what would it be really be like to live forever?’ I began to daydream and found that a particular character was answering. He – and his answers – developed into the voice of Abel. He’s one example. It happens with the others in a similar way. Often, inconveniently, at 3am…”
“I might fill six or seven notebooks with rabbiting, unedited scribble”
“I write pages and pages of conversations with these characters in notebooks, longhand. I might fill six or seven notebooks with rabbiting, unedited scribble. When I’ve done that I start typing up to see what I’ve got, where all the gaps are, whether there is a story in the mess. And if, out of all the whatever-thousand words, I see the root of a story then I will start writing.”
Right character wrong novel
Rosie says that her characters have very insistent voices and they can stay with her for a long time. Abel began in “awful novel two which was woefully in search of a plot” and couldn’t tell his story. Rosie carried him around in her head until she introduced him to Eve in The Palace of Curiosities who enabled him to grow and develop. “He just needed to meet the right people at the right time.”
“I am joy, complete, forever”
Abel has left Rosie alone. She explains. “He has told his story now. It’s like closure. He gets the last line in Palace, ‘I am joy, complete, forever’. And that’s it. Abel has told his story and has left me alone.”
Rosie feels that her other characters have been able to tell their stories – well everyone apart from Thomas in Vixen, who appears in another novel set in present day Manchester where a librarian has a habit of stealing pages from books.
Don’t get it right – get it written
Tom Clancy summed it up when he said “just tell the damn story”. Rosie believes that you don’t have to get it right but get it written. It’s very easy to get carried away with research, especially when writing novels set in the past. Because Vixen is set in 1349, it’s important the historical details were correct, but they mustn’t get in the way of the story. She explains,
“just tell the damn story” Tom Clancy
“I did some research about mediaeval laundry and some of the awful stuff they used to bleach it, but none of it is in the story – what’s important is that Thomas makes Anne do the laundry far more often than necessary and it drives her nuts having to waste all her time. That’s the important thing, the interaction between them, not about what paddle she uses. Just tell the damn story.”
If you get stuck over a detail Rosie advises putting it in brackets for checking later and carrying on with the storyline. She says “No one cares whether the arrow is tipped with pigeon feather, eagle feather or goshawk feather, what’s important is who the hell does he shoot with the arrow.”