Q. How much of The Underground Man is based on the real Fifth Duke of Portland and how much is made up?
A. The vast majority of the book is pure invention. The real duke didn’t trepan himself, have a valet called Clement or wander up and down his tunnels singing sea shanties. All I will say is that the real duke did appear to be a genuine eccentric and, from what one can tell, actually quite a kind person and I did my best to have my duke personify both those qualities.
Q. In Five Boys, why does Bobby leave the story halfway through?
A. The original idea was to have The Bee King character arrive in the village at the start of the novel, but as the story developed into one which necessitated certain events taking place before his arrival and the decision was taken to tell the story chronologically, once Bobby’s job was done I wanted to have him return home, although I can now see that having the reader empathize with him so profoundly in the first third of the book makes it a bit of shock to have the focus shift to other characters later on.
Q. Is Ten Sorry Tales meant for children or for grown-ups?
A.To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure anymore. I wrote the stories quite specifically for children, with the occasional joke thrown in here and there for any grown-up who might be reading the book aloud. I gave early copies of the book to friends who’ve got children – typically aged about 8 or 10 – and their responses were generally very positive and seemed to confirm my own attitude, which is that if a passage makes the reader uncomfortable, because it’s too scary or simply too complicated – whatever the reader’s age – then they simply skip that section or ultimately put the book down.
Having said that, when I gave the book to my editor he felt that the book should be published simply as a collection of (albeit rather strange) short stories – a view shared by a couple of friends who also read the book early on. So, in the end Faber and I agreed that we should publish it simply as a ‘curiosity’ and let the reader make up his or her own mind.
Q. How did you get into writing fiction?
A. The short answer is… relatively easily. I’d been writing lyrics in bands for something like six years and wanted to try developing some ideas which were slightly different in structure and tone to the songs. I’d written since I was a kid – originally, like a lot of teenagers, poetry, then drama at college – and when it came to it, the actual shift from writing songs to what might be called ‘prose-poems’ was not much of a jump at all. This coincided with some members of the band pointing out that the lyrics I’d brought along to rehearsals actually had twelve verses and four different choruses and were not really songs at all.
(It’s worth pointing out that there are as many different ways of getting into writing as there are people who want to write. This is just how it turned out for me)
Q. Can I make a living from writing?
Q. How do I become a professional writer?
A. First, write something. Like a lot of budding writers, Jackson rather resented not being included in those articles in the Sunday papers titled: Five Wonderful Writers To Watch Out For This Year, even though he hadn’t actually had anything published. When you’ve written something, rewrite it. Then rewrite it again. Keep on rewriting it until it stops improving. When you send your work off to someone you’ll usually only get one bite of the cherry so you might as well send off the best version you can come up with.
Write about whatever you want, but choose something that you really care about – you might be working on it for years, so you’d better find it interesting. Don’t worry if it’s not like everything else out there. The fact that your writing is different might end up being its most appealing quality.
Probably the biggest difficulty is convincing yourself that you’re not wasting your time – especially if you’ve been at it for ages with no reward. There’s no easy solution to this except reminding yourself that one of the most important qualities necessary to being a writer, beyond having a modicum of talent, is perseverance. There have probably been any number of wonderful novels, poems and plays which never saw the light of day simply because their authors weren’t sufficiently equipped in the stamina department. One obvious way of alleviating some of the pressure is to set yourself a deadline (eg: a short story competition… finishing the first draft by the end of the year… whatever) – at least, then, even if you miss the deadline you’ll have got further with that particular project than you would have done otherwise. Another is to find support – either by showing your work to friends / family or joining a writers’ group. Be prepared to take a bit of criticism, but if you really don’t agree with what someone else says about your work, reserve the right to ignore them.
If you need cheering up, walk into a bookshop and pick up the first book you see. Open it randomly and start reading. The chances are that what you read will be at best mediocre. You can then tell yourself, ‘Well, if this rubbish can get published surely there’s a chance that somebody might consider publishing my stuff.’ If the book you picked up contains prose which is so beautifully crafted it makes your hair stand on end put that one down and pick up another book – quick.
Once you’ve got something written and you’re happy with it the next big step is probably to get an agent. They co-exist in the same secret world as publishers. Agents know what editors are after and how the market works. Most agents charge between 10-20% of whatever you earn, which is not bad really, when you consider that they’ll probably get at least 20% more than you’d get if you dealt with the publishers yourself and they do all the boring paperwork. If an agent is asking more than 20% there’s probably something wrong.
Q. Are creative writing courses worth doing?
A. They certainly were in my case. As I’ve said elsewhere in these pages, simply having the time to work on one’s own stories and to take oneself seriously as a writer is invaluable. There’s a popular misconception that on the first day of a creative writing course you learn how to write opening sentences and so on for the rest of the year. In fact, my experience was that whatever I learnt I picked up through general discussion – and, as often as not, whilst debating someone else’s work. There was no ‘teaching’ as such. But I can’t speak for other creative courses or, come to that, how the course at UEA is currently run.
Q. What was it like being shortlisted for the Booker Prize?
A. Very nice, thank-you. The upside is that on the night everyone treats you like a prince. The downside is that you have to wear a stupid bowtie (or fancy frock) and can’t really relax until the announcement is actually made.
There’s often some debate in the papers regarding whether prizes like the Booker, the Whitbread or the Orange should exist and whether they actually encourage the public to read more widely or to buy more books. All I’d say is that getting shortlisted for a prize certainly gave The Underground Man coverage that it would not have had otherwise. The book was published in the January of ’97 and by the late summer, when it was shortlisted, sales of the hardback had all but dried up. So, for a writer, who is not particularly well-known or published by a small press being shortlisted for one of these prizes can be a lifeline.