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?
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.
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
you use incidents from your own life in your fiction?
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.
there a message in your books?
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.
say you don't write for any particular readership. But what kind
of reader would you like to read your books?
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.
you have a plan in mind when writing? Do you know all the story
before you start writing?
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.
novels seem to blend fact and fiction, fictional characters in
real places, for example. Why do you do this?
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
you have a specific audience in mind when you write?
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?
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
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
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.]
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'.
you see yourself as a puppet master, or do your characters run
away with you sometimes?
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.
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
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.
you give talks in schools and colleges and to other groups?
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.
on the job, and how much time preparation, travel, and giving
the talk(s) will take.
do I arrange an interview?
me with details.
you always reply to email?
try. If I'm pushed for time or am away from home for a while,
someone else will answer. I never open attachments (viruses).
do you use when you write?
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
are you going to write when you've finished the last of the novels
in 'The Dance Sequence'?
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.
are your favourite books?
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.
advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?
read read. Write write write.
you any hobbies?
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.
you weren't a writer, what would you want to be?
director in the theatre who writes plays. Or a sea captain who
contents are ©Aidan Chambers unless otherwise stated.