I’d like to introduce…
Merryn Walters, a writer.
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
CAN YOU NAME THE BUSINESS BOOK THAT’S ALWAYS ON YOUR DESK? (I’M TALKING ABOUT THE ONE THAT’S COVERED IN PENCIL MARKS, COFFEE STAINS AND HAS TURNED DOWN CORNERS…)
*groan* There isn’t one. I know, I know; there’s a bookcase of battered tomes behind me and in front of me, and in every room in the house. If I had to make a recommendation to other writers in general, for common sense and commercial benefit, I’d point to Shotton’s Choice Factory and Cialdini’s Influence – but if you want honesty? We’re doing honesty here, right? Personal, oft-thumbed references? I have military annals on my desk most of the time. Best move on.
WHAT’S YOUR ALL-TIME FAVOURITE ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN?
It’s Dubonnet’s ‘tall dark stranger’ from the ’70s. Today, the overt sexism would be seen as capricious, tongue in cheek reverse psychology. It worked then. it still works now.
“EVERYONE HAS A BOOK IN THEM…” OR SO THE SAYING GOES. WHAT DO YOU THINK/KNOW/BELIEVE IS THE SECRET TO GOOD WRITING?
For a book, specifically, it’s integrity. Any writer who’s well-informed can write a book but the secret to being a good author is using your own voice, with confidence, and knowing your shit. Is that the same thing as being a good writer? Probably not. The secret to great writing is working hard. Writing until your hands hurt. And your head hurts. And your heart hurts because you know the right words are within your grasp but you’re not sure you’ve found them yet. Write until you feel you want to – you need to – you have to write some more. Then read more; study more; study and read everything, from the small print on a pack of loo-rolls to the last-gasp pulp-fiction paperback you wouldn’t use to wipe your bum. Collect new words and be greedy about it. Use them and find a way to help your readers feel smug about going off to learn what they mean. Give your work meaning. Never be satisfied with your last draft. Get to the point you feel masochistic about reading what you’ve written. That might – that might – be close to good enough.
IF YOU WERE JUST STARTING OUT, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF? WHICH BOOK OR BOOKS WOULD YOU READ FIRST?
Say no as often as you say yes. When you do say yes, have the confidence to make your next question ‘why…?’. Both will double your income and halve your costs. Write down EVERY idea you have, every time you have one. You won’t remember them later. There’s a wall of stickies and Sellotaped snippets behind me, and a blank page of expressive regret in my literary lifetime to date. Put a stack of reading material by your bed and in your bathroom, and read Andy Maslen, Tom Albrighton, Ogilvy, Bird, Dave Trott and E.B. White – every day. Take time to recharge. But don’t sleep more than 5 hours. You’re wasting time.
SILENCE? RADIO? OR MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
It’s mood dependent. Radio 3 may be ideal, but so too is the ticking of an old and erratic clock. That’s therapeutic. My Spotify runs the gamut from Pretzel Logic to Porcupine Tree, via French café jazz and Elgar and Elwood Blues. And Foo Fighters.
WHAT ARE YOUR TOP THREE NOVELS OF ALL TIME – AND WHY?
Only three? My ducats, my daughters. Hm. If you’re sending me to a desert island, I’d take The House that Berry Built by Dornford Yates: joyous escapism from a golden era, such naïveté. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute – it’s not his best but it’s a glorious tale. Graham Greene’s End of the Affair for its ability to leave me in tears, and Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only. So much action in so few sentences. That’s four, isn’t it? Okay, let’s replace Pied Piper with Dick Francis’s To The Hilt – that man knew how to carry a reader from one scene to the next without writing any words – and le Carré’s Perfect Spy. Dense; complex; coy; allusive; tragic; enchanting. No, I still can’t count. But that’s why I pay an accountant.
WHAT’S THE BEST THING YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN? WHY DID IT ROCK YOUR WORLD?
The piece of writing that’s had the most impact was drier than a monk’s jockstrap, but it did hit the right spot with government. It’s still having an impact on people’s lives, so I guess that rocks. A bit. Conversely, what really rocked my world was unsolicited praise for an obscure gonzo essay, from someone I absolutely hero-worshipped from afar. I re-read the email sometimes and still get palpitations.
WHAT’S THE LAST THING YOU BOUGHT? AND YES, THAT PACKET OF CHEWING GUM COUNTS.
A session with the massage lady, who I adore. I sit at my desk for ten or twelve hours a day and my shoulders are *killing*me.
WHO WAS YOUR TEENAGE CRUSH?
Matt Houston. And Kate Bush. Don’t @ me.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE BEST MEAL YOU’VE EVER EATEN?
It was an apple, and it was shared with a mouse.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE TIPPLE? IS IT WINE, BEER – A CASK-AGED MALT?
Champagne, darling. Good, garage Champagne. That, or a well-made Martini – and I’m too old to smile politely if you’re going to spoil it with shabby Vermouth.
IF I WERE TO GIVE YOU A PRIVATE JET, DAVID ATTENBOROUGH AS A TOUR GUIDE AND A MONTH OFF WORK – ALL EXPENSES PAID – WHERE WOULD YOU GO AND WHAT OR WHO WOULD YOU WRITE ABOUT – AND WHY?
Guadalcanal. I’d be writing about Operation Watchtower in the Second World War and absorbing Attenborough’s insights by osmosis. When I’m not writing for a living, I’m writing as an enthusiast historian. Penury on the horizon to be sure and two books in progress, neither of which involves the Pacific Theatre, but since you’ve proffered the private jet… that’s one battlefield I haven’t visited. Yet.
WHAT’S IN YOUR POCKETS?
I. Am. Such. A. Cliché. A cork, a penknife, some foreign coins, and a receipt for that massage. It’s pretty crumpled. As was I. Sic.
PEN AND INK, PENCIL AND PAPER OR KEYBOARD AND SCREEN? WHAT’S YOUR WRITING STYLE?
One MacbookPro and one mahoosive screen that I use in portrait mode. Stickies in the car and notebooks in every bag.
DO YOU READ ANY BLOGS OR MAGAZINES ABOUT WRITING? (AND I MEAN READ, NOT JUST SUBSCRIBE TO AND DELETE/LEAVE ON YOUR DESK AND RECYCLE?)
Not really. Does it make me sound old if I say they’re all pretty passé? I appreciate that bright young things feel the need to engage, but it’s all soooo introspective. Serious clients are all busy doing business, they’re not interested in Hot Tips to Improve Your Writing – really, they’re not. I haven’t deleted Dave Harland yet (hello, Dave), but that’s because his style is a breath of fresh air. OOOOOXOOOOO. Mind you, as a voracious reader I’m analysing the cadence, construction, and impact of everything I do read. Everything. The twitch is something I’ve learned to live with.
TEA – OR COFFEE? WHAT’S YOUR POISON?
Coffee. Black. Freshly ground beans, pour-over. It’s like an eastern tea ritual, it’s how I take a thinking break during the day.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE CUP OR MUG? CAN YOU DESCRIBE IT?
No favourites. My OCD would kick in if one of them was singled out.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST ADORED CHILDREN’S BOOK? AND CHARACTER?
The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. My mother’s rendition of Plop going ‘EEEEEK!’ had me in fits of laughter, and that memory still makes me feel warm and fuzzy now.
YOUR FAVOURITE WORD?
I love this question. It’s the one I scroll to first. There’s such a dichotomy for me here, are the answers the writers’ perceptions of words and what they invoke, or are they their appreciation for phonetic constructs? I’m on the spectrum, I know that, but it’s the way I think. In some of my work, I have to analyse the perceptions and articulations of words one at a time… I can feel you rolling your eyes. Okay. Um … let’s go with ‘vivamus’. As in ‘dum vivimus, vivamus’ – and that means I forgot one of my favourite books. Dang.
YOUR MOST LOATHED WORD? (YOU KNOW, THE ONE THAT MAKES YOU SHUDDER AND SAY “EW!”?)
WHERE CAN WE FIND YOU? – BROWSING ONLINE OR LOST IN THE AISLES OF A BOOKSTORE?
Online. Bemoaning the frequency with which certain niche bookshops have organised their targeted marketing and pop-up ads, damn their eyes.
FAVOURITE SONG LYRIC OF ALL TIME? AND WHY?
“I have never met Napoleon, but I plan to find the time.” I cannot tell you why.
NAME THE ARTIST WHO IS GUARANTEED TO GET YOU UP ON THE DANCE FLOOR.
DO YOU HAVE ANY STRANGE WRITING RITUALS YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE WITH US?
None. On the contrary, I live in fear of developing writing habits.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON TODAY? WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE?
The update for a website. Shaping some comms strategy for a consultancy. An article for a military think tank. Some tweets and a letter to a very dear friend – and I have the draft to one of my books open.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE LAST PHOTOGRAPH YOU TOOK?
Not in public.
WHAT PIECE OF ADVICE REALLY CHANGED YOU AS A WRITER?
Give yourself permission to read.
WHAT WAS THE LAST THING YOU WROTE THAT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUR JOB?
That letter, which has been in my desk for two days. Naughty Merryn.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE QUOTE ABOUT THE PROCESS OF WRITING?
‘You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.’ Ray Bradbury.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE MAD MAN – OR WOMAN?
Never seen it. [Insert shock-horror meme here.]
CAN YOU NAME YOUR FAVOURITE FILM – AND TELL US WHY YOU LOVE IT?
That’s a toss-up between High Society, The American President, and Ice Cold in Alex. Sorkin might have the edge. It’s the writing. Brilliant, brilliant writing.
WHICH BOOK OR BOOKS IS/ARE BY YOUR BED TODAY?
I could fudge this, but I won’t. I don’t sleep very much. There’s a stack of books by my bed and you must not judge me by their covers. Leonard Cohen’s last collection of poems; The Gothic Line by Douglas Orgill; Ford’s translation of Mein Kampf; Barack Obama’s autobiography; The Nuremberg Chronicles; Philippe Sand’s Ratlines; James Holland’s Italy’s Sorrow; The Castle of Adventure, Enid Blyton.
WHO WAS OR IS YOUR GREATEST TEACHER?
Mrs Losh-Atkinson. Four feet ten in her ‘bike boots. Sensational and much missed.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE ARTIST?
Visual art? If I’m pushed to choose one above all others, it’s Eric Ravilious.
WHERE DO YOU LIKE TO WORK BEST – IS IT AT A DESK, IN AN OFFICE OR IN A COFFEE SHOP? AND WOULD YOU SEND US A PICTURE OF WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS?
I have one room in which I write, and I have a rule about not writing anywhere else in the house.
AND FINALLY, WHERE CAN THIS CAFFEINE-FUELLED AUDIENCE FIND YOU?
Website: www.rentaquill.co.uk Twitter: @rentaquill Linkedin: What is this *checks* Linking In of which you speak? :o)