Frequently Asked Questions

You talk about 'The Dance Sequence'. And DANCE ON MY GRAVE is the most widely read - and probably the best liked - of your books. Is it special to you?
All my books are like a family. You like each person in the family for different reasons. Dance took the longest to write, from 1966 until 1982, and while I was writing it, I suddenly just knew - intuited - there would be six books that would be related to each other in various ways. It took so long to write because I wasn't ready for it when the conception happened. I didn't have the technical skills and didn't know myself well enough as a writer.
BREAKTIME, which came to me in 1975 and was published in 1978, taught me everything I needed to know. It's like an explosion of literary forms and techniques, different kinds of narrative. And it was at the start of writing it that I made the rules that still guide me: No compromises in use of language or content. Always have a 'reference point for truth' [see next question]. Do not write for anyone, any particular readership, but focus on the text itself - on making the book and allowing it to become what it wants to be.
Do you use incidents from your own life in your fiction?
Yes, but I 'recycle' them in to fiction. I'm not a journalist, not a newspaper reporter. Years ago, when I started BREAKTIME, I made a rule that whatever I wrote, whatever scene I 'invented', I would always have 'a reference point for truth' in my own life against which I can test the 'truth' of the scene I was writing. This doesn't mean I must have undergone an exactly similar event but that I have observed something or experienced something that helps me understand the 'truth' of the fictional event. And if I have experienced something exactly like the one in the story, I do not describe it just as it happened to me, but 'recycle' it through the consciousness and circumstances of the character in the story to whom the event is happening.
Is there a message in your books?
Not in the propagandist sense, and not in the sense of 'teaching lessons'. But no fiction, none at all, is without an ideology, whether the writer knows what it is or not. And all stories are 'moral structures': they are always about what happens, to whom it happens, and why. It is the 'why' that carries the moral code. Stories are explorations of life, the way it is or could be. They are all explorations of the way people behave and why they behave as they do. And they are all meditations on whether it is 'good' to live that way, to behave like that, or not. I cannot help my novels communicating attitudes to life - moral stances - that I either approve or disapprove, because this is systemic in storytelling. But what I intend to do is to write the story in such a way that it leaves the reader enough room to 'remake' the meaning so that the reader is as free as possible of me, and especially of my unconscious assumptions and beliefs. Iris Murdoch, a philosopher and one of my favourite novelists, once wrote, 'Living is making distinctions and indicating order and pattern'. I would like my novels to help readers make distinctions in life, to indicate an order that enlivens them, and to find patterns that help them make sense of life.
You say you don't write for any particular readership. But what kind of reader would you like to read your books?
I'm not interested in readers who read quickly just to pass the time. I'm not in the entertainment industry. Of course, I want my books to be enjoyed, to give pleasure. But that's a different matter. I get pleasure from working hard, when it's work I want to do. As a reader, I enjoy reading books that make me think and that are so rich and generous that I have to reread them to get all I can from them. So I suppose I want to write books of that kind and want to be read by people who read the way I do.
Do you have a plan in mind when writing? Do you know all the story before you start writing?
No. I prepare for a long time. Two years and more. In that time, I'm getting to know the characters, finding out their names and how they behave, what they look like, hearing their voices. I discover where the story is set and when. I research and walk every inch of the locations, and often photograph them as well. And I get a sense of how long the story will be and how it will end, though I don't know the details. By the time I start writing, I know that certain key scenes are likely to happen, but I don't always know where they'll come in the story. For instance, in Dance on my Grave, I knew pretty well from the time the story was conceived that there would be a scene in a morgue, but I didn't know why or where it would come in the book and I didn't know that Hal would dress as a girl in order to get in to the morgue. All the time, before and during the writing, I trust my intuition. Follow my nose, if you like. During the writing of the book, things change, unexpected scenes emerge, new characters appear. I have to live the story and grow with it, and the story has to live and grow in me. We're both different by the end.
Your novels seem to blend fact and fiction, fictional characters in real places, for example. Why do you do this?
It's partly a game. What is 'fact' and what is 'fiction' and how do we tell the difference? A very serious game, but still, a game. And I want my fiction to be like 'fact' - what people call 'real life'. Yet at the same time the story is an artefact - a 'fact of art', a made object which is very carefully patterned and crafted. Also, my characters live in the same world I live in myself. They encounter the same things I come across. And they are human beings like me. My mind is full of stories about things that have happened to me. But also stories that come to me 'out of the blue' - fantasies, day-dreams, imaginings of different kinds - and these are part of 'real life' also. My mind is full of quotations from books I've read, music I've heard, plays and films I've seen, images, bits of information, ideas, jokes, and all the rest of the anthology that is our inner world. So my characters and my books are like that too. But each book treats this 'raw material' in a different way.
The following questions, which add to some of those above, were asked recently by Sieta van der Hoeven and published in Opinion, the journal of the South Australian English Teachers Association, beginning with Vol 45 No 1, Term 2, 2001. They are intended as the start of a continuing e-mail 'interview'. Other readers are encouraged to join in. E-mail Sieta at:
Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?
The short answer is 'No'. The long answer would take at least a volume to explore. But to try and be brief: In some of my novels, the 'reader' is a character in the book. In BREAKTIME it is Morgan. In DANCE ON MY GRAVE it is the social worker, Ms Atkins. In THE TOLL BRIDGE it is Adam/Aston. NOW I KNOW and POSTCARDS FROM NO MAN'S LAND are more problematic. Most of Now I Know seems to be addressed to Julie. But the passages about Tom seem to be differently directed. In Postcards, the reader is even more uncertain all through. Those two books deliberately pose what the critics would call a hermeneutic question (a question of interpretation): Who is the reader?
For me, the important question is not 'Who is being addressed? Who is the reader?' - those are journalistic, not literary questions - but 'Who is speaking? Who is writing this story?' It is a question of voice. And I think if you reread the novels in the order in which they were written with this question in mind, you realise that in every case, even those which seem to be addressed to a specific character, by the end of the book the writer is really addressing him-or-herself. Not him-herself now - at the time of writing. Perhaps him-herself at a much later time. Or, to put it better, his-her 'other self', a self that co-exists with his-her writing self.
This is specially true of Postcards. In that book, Geertrui quite clearly addresses the contemporary Jacob. But contemporary Jacob's story is not addressed to anyone specifically identified. And my feeling is that his is writing to himself - writing in order to understand himself. (I think this is what Anne Frank does for more than half her Diary - to quote another teenaged example, who is also present in Postcards.)
The essential thing to concentrate on, in my opinion, is not the reader, whether as a character in-the-book, or as an implied reader, or as an actual reader outside the book (interesting though all these are), but on the consciousness of the author-in-the-book. Indeed, I feel this is an almost totally neglected field in literary criticism, especially of children's and youth literature, and is far more important that the now much-discussed 'reader-in the-book'. (As you see, because of my experience of writing authored fiction, I've moved on from the essay I wrote in 1977 called 'The Reader in the Book' [included in BOOKTALK], and the discussion I had with Alan Garner, first published in the September 1978 issue of Signal magazine and a fuller version in The Signal Approach to Children's Books, Kestrel Books, 1980.]
Since then, my attention has been occupied when writing a novel by 'the consciousness in the book'. This is not the same as the implied author - though the one is an integral part of the other. In order to read such writing, the reader has to adjust him-herself to the consciousness-in-the-book, make him-herself available to it, has to 'become' that consciousness - has to allow it to enter him-herself. How this happens, how it is achieved by a reader, is, it seems to me, a much more necessary study than a simplistic account of 'the reader in the book'.
Do you see yourself as a puppet master, or do your characters run away with you sometimes?
Neither. I'm certainly not a puppet master. I abhor that kind of writing. But neither do the characters run away with me. The best I can say briefly is this: For me, writing a novel is like getting to know people. At first you receive impressions based on their physical appearance, or their behaviour, their ways of talking, or - important to me - their way of writing. And so on. Gradually, your understanding of them and your reactions to them develop, change, grow, deepen, as you get to know them better.
In writing a novel this first getting-to-know-them period takes quite a long time - two years or longer. It is the time before I start writing the book - the brooding time, time in which the story and the characters gradually inhabit me and begin to live inside me.
Then my understanding and knowledge develop more, much more, while I'm writing the book. The characters reveal themselves most intimately while I'm actually writing the book. They often reveal surprising aspects of themselves I didn't know about before. And sometimes this changes the way I thought the story would go. But they never 'run away' with me. Or at least, not unless they take me with them. Because by the time I start to write the book they inhabit me so intimately that I am them and they are me.
Do you give talks in schools and colleges and to other groups?
Yes, when they can be fitted in with writing books. Mail me with details of the kind of talk or lecture you have in mind, location, and possible dates.
What's your fee?
Depends on the job, and how much time preparation, travel, and giving the talk(s) will take.
How do I arrange an interview?
Mail me with details.
Do you always reply to email?
I try. If I'm pushed for time or am away from home for a while, someone else will answer. I never open attachments (viruses).
What do you use when you write?
I write the first draft of novels in pencil on A4 narrow-lined pads. And since NOW I KNOW I've used a word processor for the second draft, writing the text on to pages exactly like I want in the published book. Plays, essays and articles, letters and almost everything else, I write straight on to my word processor.
What are you going to write when you've finished the last of the novels in 'The Dance Sequence'?
Six books about being a new-style old man in the twenty-first century. Old now is not old like it used to be. It's a whole new and uncharted territory of human life. What could be more exciting than to map it in novels? At the present rate of production, I'll have to live till I'm at least 95 with all my faculties intact if I'm to get the job done. I also plan to write more plays - the ones I've sensed in my imagination for years but which I haven't managed to get on to paper so far.
What are your favourite books?
Most of them are on the shelves of my library and are too many to list. But click PERSONAL COLUMN to find out what I'm reading at the moment.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?
Read read read. Write write write.
Have you any hobbies?
Never felt the need. I'm such a slow reader and love reading so much that I never had time for hobbies anyway. But I started to learn the piano four years ago. Be glad you don't live next door.
If you weren't a writer, what would you want to be?
A director in the theatre who writes plays. Or a sea captain who writes novels.
All contents are ©Aidan Chambers unless otherwise stated.



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