I'm doing a few events this year, to celebrate The Muse for Cityread London, to have a general chat about literature, and to promote The Restless Girls. More soon on The Restless Girls, but this is what's going on at the mo:
Sunday 20 May 2018, 12.30pm - 1.30pm, The Ned Hotel, Poultry, London
Harper's Bazaar Literary Salon, with Ali Smith, Elif Safak and Tessa Hadley
Tuesday 29 May 2018, 7.30pm, Information and Reference Library, Richmond Library
In conversation with Anna James
Thursday 31 May 2018, 6.30-8.30pm, Reading Room, The London Library
In conversation with Sam Baker and Cathy Tyson
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Will you critique my work in progress / unpublished novel?
I'm afraid not. It's incredibly flattering to be thought competent enough to read and critique your work – as it is a great responsibility – but unfortunately I haven’t got enough hours in the day to read my own at the moment, and if I did it for one person, I'd feel bad not doing it for another! I write books, I don't edit or publish them. If you’re looking for feedback, ask someone you trust, who reads a lot themselves, or, perhaps join a writers’ workshop. There is no point sending me your work via DM on Instagram or Twitter, as I won't be able to read it. I'm too busy looking at people's aspirational pictures....
Will you send my work on to your literary agent?
My agent, Juliet, has her company website, www.caskiemushens.com, where you can find everything you need to know about submitting to her, directly.
I want to be a writer, but I don’t know where to start. Can you give me some inspiration or writing tips?
If you want to 'be' a writer, you have to write. On a piece of paper, on a laptop, on the back of your hand: it’s that simple. It’s not a state of ‘being’, it’s a state of doing. And doing quite a lot of it, at the expense of quite a lot of other things. If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Read widely, read for love, read for analysis, read to be disgusted, read to be delighted. It is not as romantic a job as you might think, but it is certainly a rewarding one. You have to be determined, bloody-minded yet highly sensitive, willing to take knockback after knockback, cheerful in the face of daily misery, and happy with your own company. For my other tips, check my website here. My other tip is: ignore writing tips.
How do I get a literary agent?
This might help. I would also add: it doesn't matter where you went to school, or who your dad is. It's writing a good book that counts.
Where can I write to you?
You can write c/o my agent, Juliet, at Juliet@caskiemushens.com, or to my publicist, Maura, at email@example.com. If you want to write a proper paper letter (yay!) their addresses are on their websites.
I’m writing about your novels for my thesis / A-levels / GCSEs. Can I ask you some questions about your work? What were your thematic intentions when you wrote that scene? Why does X do this? Why do we not learn more about Y?
Firstly: ooooomg I have made it into an essay?! I can die happy. What an amazing honour – whenever this happens, it leaves me reeling with pleasure. Thank you. Although I want to answer, because it can be fascinating to see how my work gets reinterpreted, I would much, much rather leave it to you to actually write the thing, without me interfering. It’s a literary essay, you can tear me apart if you want. I'm supposed to be absent – you’re looking at the world of the work, not at me. And in all honesty, I may not even be able to answer your questions, as looking from the outside in at my own work is not particularly easy for me, nor do I feel it is advisable. When I write a book, it contains everything I could ever give that particular piece of work at that particular time in my life. Then I hand it to the reader, who completes the circle, however she sees fit. I never want to put myself in the way of that final stage. I have nothing more to offer. There are many interviews I've done online, where I talk about the inspiration behind my work, and what I was intending in my writing of it.
Look, come on. Everyone has a price.
Fine. A lifetime's supply of Terry's Chocolate Orange, and I'll write the book for you myself.
Please, pretty please, can you answer SOMETHING?
OK, GO ON.
What was your first experience of writing as a child?
I wrote stories from a young age. Writing things down was the same for me as breathing, and I didn’t think much about it. I just wrote all the time. I would say I was bored, and my mother would say, ‘why don’t you write a story?’ So I did. I wrote poems as presents for people. I wrote school plays. My very first full story was called Dolly and the Dustcart, and it was – oddly enough, given the subject matter of my first novel – the tale of a doll that comes to life. All my stories were fascinated with pregnancy. There was always the announcement of pregnancy as a conclusion to the action, and I always put in an extra ‘d’. I thought you spelled it ‘pregdnant.’
To what extent has your upbringing shaped your writing?
I’m an only child, and this shaped me greatly. I had a lot of friends, and one or two very good ones, but growing up, you’re inevitably undisturbed for vast stretches of time, or you’re just with your parents. It can be peaceful, and my tendency to fantasize flourished in this tranquillity. My parents always took me to the library to get a regular cycle of books: I had to fight tooth and nail to get a Barbie doll (I did, in the end), but there was no such battle if I wanted a book. Often dad would take me to a bookshop on a Sunday, as if it was our church! So literature was never intimidating to me. I was almost careless about it, like I was with my writing. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.
What was your relationship with writing when you were studying at Oxford University? What types of literature and which novelists were you most attracted to at that time?
In my last-round interview at Warwick University for their English Lit and Creative Writing degree, the interviewer threw my work down on the carpet and said, ‘well, you know you’re a poet, don’t you? And if you go to Oxford, they will crush your creativity.’ I went to Oxford, and he was right, though it was mainly an issue of my own confidence. I was intimidated by the writing scene at Oxford. Looking back, it was probably a bit insufferable, lots of pseuds, preening around because they were at Oxford. I wrote bad essays for a long while, but I found a rhythm in time for Finals, and did surprisingly well. I loved to read, I just didn’t like to write my own stuff; I thought none of it was good enough. I was most attracted to Latin-American writers on my Spanish syllabus. And Virginia Woolf. I was very unprepared for Woolf, but I remember going to Hermione Lee’s lecture on her, and it was like a jolt of electricity through the blood. It was a moving experience, and as Professor Lee left the room, we rose as one to give her a standing ovation. I thought being at Oxford had completely desiccated my belief in my own writing, but recently I found an abandoned novel I started there. It was bad. But I’m glad I had some youthful confidence, at least. Not even the genius of Woolf had burned it out.
Which person in your life (specifically) has influenced your writing most, and why?
I don’t reveal my sources, because then I won’t be able to tap them anymore. There are one or two who keep cropping up. But as to influence in terms of encouragement, I had an English teacher called Mr. Owen – never the easiest of men, but he believed in me, and challenged me, and he told me I wrote the only piece of homework he’d ever received in thirty years of teaching that had made him cry. Hopefully not because it was awful.
How do you feel now about your first novel, The Miniaturist? In what ways has your relationship with writing changed since writing it?
My feelings about the book change regularly. It only came out three years ago, but sometimes, it feels like thirty. I cannot be too reverent of it. I have to keep creating new work. And yet, I’m defensive of it. Sometimes, it is too painful for me even to open, because I know that inside resides a very precious version of myself, a self I cannot ever reclaim, for all I can feel her pulse inside those pages. I’ve gained so much, but I know I’ll never get her back, the simplicity of telling a story in the dark. It’s not a perfect book, but it was put under such blinding scrutiny as if it should have been. It was executed with an honesty that does me credit, and I have grown from the experience of writing it, of having it read. I’m so grateful to it, but it’s not a simple relationship.
Where did the idea for it originally come from? And how do you feel now about its reception?
It all started when I visited Amsterdam in October 2009. I was passing through the Rijksmuseum and saw this extraordinary cabinet house built in 1686. It was so intimate and intricate, yet so imposing. The owner, Petronella Oortman, had commissioned an exact replica of her house in miniature, but it had cost her as much as a full-blown townhouse to do so. I was intrigued by the possible psychology behind her extravagance, the claustrophobic overtones combined with a desire to exert control over her life. I thought Golden Age Amsterdam was a perfect backdrop against which to set such a story. I am – as I ever was – delighted to my core at the novel’s reception. It is just so wonderful to have readers who actually want to read your words. It’s a miraculous, amazing transaction, and one over which I shall never become complacent.
To what extent - and in what ways - has becoming a household name had an impact on the way you write? (ie, added pressure/being conscious of your audience.)
It was Picasso who said he spent his entire adult life trying to remember how he drew when he was six. It’s not that I’m trying to rewrite Dolly and the Dustcart again, but once you have a successful book, you have to understand that the barriers you superseded are no longer there, and you need to consider the possibility that you’re floating, and you need a goal. You are at once freer, and yet at times more hobbled. But whatever you are, you’re still a writer, and you’re only as good as your last day’s work. So I don’t sit at my desk and think, ‘mmm, would a Household Name write such a sentence?’ I just work hard to get the words out, to listen to what is inside me, to find the channels in me to let those words out, and to push them when they simply won’t come. I just hope that the individual work will speak for itself, and not sit on the coat-tails of the book that came before it.
How, specifically, has your writing routine/ritual developed over the years?
Given that my ‘routine’ in writing The Miniaturist involved sending paragraphs of the text to myself in the bulk of business emails when I worked as a PA, you might think that things have improved. Alas, no. It’s still a patchwork process, with no particular rituals. I just try and get the words out, and give myself lots of breaks. I don’t tend to write my novels in chronological order. I write in scenes, which move around a lot. I try and write a certain amount of words a day, but I don’t force myself behind the desk for eight hours. I take days off. I do other things. Everything, the fabric of living, a walk, a film, a conversation, is also the fabric of writing the book. I can often get more done in two hours than a whole day at the laptop. It comes in fits and starts. I like candles, a lot. I find them calming. And lavender oil and huge woollen cardigans. A postcard of my favourite, Lorca. I just need the first draft done, which can take seven or eight months, often longer. Then I work more intensively, methodically, because I have the material before me: I’m not fighting anymore to get it out.
To what extent were you involved with the television adaptation of The Miniaturist?
I’m just so thrilled it’s actually happening, because a lot of books get optioned for TV and film, and…nada. The galvanising force behind all this was the Executive Producer, Kate Sinclair. I just enjoyed the ride. I was kept in the loop about ideas for casting, locations, etc., but I didn’t have any final say in any of it. I didn’t adapt it myself, firstly because I was writing The Muse, and secondly, because I wonder whether it’s always the wisest route for a novelist to adapt her own work. I did a two hour Skype call with the screenwriter, John Brownlow, so that he could pick my brains and get to the marrow of what I had been trying to do with the book, and how he might translate that to the screen. He’s done a fabulous job. I got to visit set a few times, and they even dressed me up as a merchant’s wife, complete with what felt like twenty corsets tied around my middle. I’m in one of the scenes, at the Guild of Silversmiths. Blink, and you’ll miss me. Hollywood beckons.
How disciplined are you when writing? What distracts you? And what are your vices (while writing)?
I’m pretty good. I get the job done, at a cost, sometimes, health-wise – mind and body. It’s a big ask of yourself. It was Ursula le Guin who said authors had to think of themselves as athletes. It’s a huge drain on your body, writing a novel. The brain eats those calories more than any other organ. And producing a novel, several drafts, takes a massive psychic toll. Not just on you, but on those around you. When I haven’t been writing a while, and I get back to it, my god, it’s exhausting at first. I can manage what, an hour, two? Then the muscle gets stronger. Then more words come. But it’s tough. I laugh when people think I do this for pleasure. Pleasure is Netflix, a walk in the park with my goddaughter. This is work.
I get distracted by the internet, namely the fantasia of Instagram and the beauty of the latest Gucci offerings on Net a Porter. I get distracted by the possibility of other stories, perfect because I haven’t attempted to write them yet. I get distracted by despondency, my own imperfections. I get distracted by my own work, if I’m not locked into it deep enough. I start skimming like a water-boatman. The whole thing is a nightmare. My vices: chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. I love Mikado fingers. They’re so thin, it’s like they don’t count.
Why did you begin to write - what makes you continue?
I can’t say why it all began. I just can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. I continue because it is a compulsion, because it is a fundamental part of who I am. I don’t always love it; it can be one of the hardest parts of my life, often enough. But it has brought me my life. It has brought me almost everything. I continue because I want to, because I’m good at it more often than I’m terrible, and because they paid me. It’s how I earn my living in this world.
What is your relationship between your home life and your fiction writing? To what extent does the former shape the latter?
Elementally, I see connections between my lived experience and what ends up on the page. I can sense the synthesis, and I think my past experiences in love, particularly, and as a daughter, are beginning to rise ever more to the surface. It’s more of an imbuing, a presence that I know resides behind the words. The thing is, writing never feels to me like the kind of job you can pick up and leave behind the moment you come in the front door. My life is the house, and the writing the reconfiguration of a particular room. That said, I try and make my actual physical home cosy and calm, and full of friends who like me for who I am and not what they can get out of me, with whom I can have conversations and laughter that take me from the dread of an empty page.
What is the best piece of advice you've been given related to books/reading/writing?
I’ve read so many useful observations about the craft of writing and the philosophy of writing (particularly in Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer), but one personal recollection sticks. I met Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies, at a book festival in Colorado. I was burned out: so exhausted, the floor was moving. She was very kind to me. And she wrote in my copy of her book that I had to protect my art monster. Your art monster is the thing inside you that you have to answer, and put other things second. It might make you unpopular. It might make your commitments slide. But all the rest is noise. You have to fight for your right to write. You have to look after the very gift that got you here. Because without the books, there wouldn’t be any festivals in the first place.
What was the inspiration for The Muse?
Compared to The Miniaturist – which is anchored by a very solid, physical object – The Muse derives from multiple interests, and was driven more by experience than curiosity. I was inspired by so many things when I wrote The Muse – huge scopes – war, love, art and colonialism. I wanted to write about southern Spain in the 1930s, and London through the eyes of a Trinidadian immigrant to London. It was a question of how to tie those interests together. I knew I also wanted to write about the creative process, so this was my solution. My approach to the historical research was the same, but my impulses to write this book were very different. I wanted to look again at secrecy, at female creativity, and finding a place to belong, but this time, I wanted to play with the idea of the male artist exploiting, and in many cases, destroying, his female muse. The objectified, often nude, female body has been the cornerstone in Western art for as long as men have had access to brush, paint, money and status. And they’ve always been the ones who’ve had much easier access to those things, who’ve granted themselves permission to tell their own stories, essentially to describe the world according to their eyes. I wanted to write a book in which women were artists, and really good ones, too.
What do you find most different, challenging or delightful about writing children’s fiction as opposed to adult fiction, and vice versa?
When I write for young readers, I’m looking to achieve the same things as for my adult readers: a sense of being transported, a blossoming realisation that this writer knows what she’s doing, a believable alternate universe I’m inviting them into, characters they can get behind, and a desire perhaps to pause over an image, combined with a propulsive need to find out what the hell is going to happen next. I want to respect them yet stretch them; let them luxuriate a little, but make them see things deeper. Easy. When I wrote The Restless Girls (out in 2018), I tried to remember my ten-year-old self, and what thrilled me as a younger reader: a fizzing imagination, a dose of transgression, the way that details and scenery and humour create an irresistible world I could imagine, but which was just out of reach. I want the same for all ages, really: the melancholy beauty of being a reader.
What has been your greatest challenge in your writing career to date, and how did you overcome it?
I don’t have much problem writing, it’s being a person who writes that’s hard. I would prefer just writing my books and sending them out into the world. Being consumed publicly triggered a seismic change in me, which I didn’t notice immediately. I write my books because I don’t have the answers, not because I do. So being asked to externally represent and explain my writing has not always been easy. I think talking about the personal process of writing is a dangerous game. Certain things should be left unsaid, unanalysed, left to flourish in the margins. My greatest challenge has been to put myself in the public whilst trying to hide in plain sight. I don’t know if I’ve overcome it.
What are you proudest of?
That somehow, through sheer force of will, and luck, and circumstance, I have managed to make a living from the thing that I do best.
What six books mean the most to you?
This is such a brutal question, and my answers change regularly. But these crop up a lot...
A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. I took this out of the school library when I was 11 years old, and read it repeatedly. In it, I see the blueprint for The Miniaturist. It’s a very romantic, yearning book, full of scents and texture and escapist possibility, with a determined young woman at the centre of it.
Romancero Gitano/Gypsy Ballads by Federico García Lorca. Lorca is my lodestar. I am so grateful that I can read him in the original, as it is hard to translate the power of his words into English. The spirit, beauty and primordial grace behind his poetry and drama have always inspired me; as has his battle of the individual in the face of collective repression. He reminds me that I am free as a writer, to write as and how I see fit.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The first ‘adult’ novel I read. Just that book, really, that one reads as a 12-year-old, and it lasts forever in your bloodstream. I can see that Red Room that Jane is left in, I can see the looming strangeness of Thornfield Hall. It’s because of this book that one of my heroines in The Muse, Olive Schloss, has her studio in the attic. I’ve always been interested in what women do up in the attic, and have been astonished to discover that GCSE students are using The Miniaturist as a comparative text against Brontë’s masterpiece. The mind boggles, but the heart understands it.
The Go-Between by L P Hartley. This is one of the most melancholic, yet authoritative and inexpressibly English books I’ve ever read. Yet I love its openness, its unashamed use of symbolism. It’s an abundant book about repression, and I admire its structure and ramping tension. The only thing is, I wish he hadn’t felt the need for an epilogue.
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. This book was given to me as a gift a decade ago, and it has remained close to my heart. I love Hustvedt’s scope: she is a playful polymath, and her expertise in psychology and art is a privilege to be immersed in. This is a powerful, unsettling, devastating novel, about art and loss and sex and well, just people, trying to be.
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. Recommended to me by my literary agent, it is an explosion of a book. The best historical fiction I have ever read. A book about the other side of the colonial coin, with a visceral and violent devastation unlike any other of its ‘genre’. But above all, it’s the voice that does it for me. I much prefer this novel over James’ Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings. I think of it often as genre-bending book. Set in the past, with its eye on the present.