Read our in depth interview with Judith at the bottom of this page....
Judith Allnatt is an acclaimed short story writer and novelist. Her first novel, A Mile of River, was a Radio 5 Live Book of the Month and was shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Literature; her second novel, The Poet’s Wife, was shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award. Short stories have featured in the Bridport Prize Anthology, the Commonwealth Short Story Awards, and on BBC Radio 4. Her latest novel, The Moon Field, described by The Times as ‘deeply moving’, is set in the First World War. Judith has lectured widely on Creative Writing for universities and freelance for two decades. She loves meeting readers and works with a wide range of literature organisations and festivals giving readings and talks. She lives with her family in Northamptonshire and is working on her fourth novel, to be published by HarperCollins in spring 2015. Find out more about Judith’s books and events at: www.judithallnatt.co.uk Twitter: @judithallnatt
Judith Allnatt in 60 seconds
When did you start writing?On the farm in Staffordshire where I was brought up.
What do you love about Short Stories?I love the economy of the form and the power that this can lend to the content - as if the subject is examined with a magnifying glass under a bright light.
Do you write in other forms?I’ve written three novels and am currently working on a fourth.I also write poetry, and occasionally, journalism.
What distracts you from writing?Noise (bad). Tea and cake (good).
Outside of writing, what are your other passions?Reading (obviously), teaching, good drama, the countryside and walking.
What is your favourite book?The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Who are your favourite writers?Rose Tremain, Sue Gee. and Anita Shreve
Where is your dream location?The gardens at the Villa Bardini, Florence.
What one item would you put into Room 101?My new varifocal specs.
Do you have any advice for new writers?Research the subjects that interest you and ‘write what you want to find out.’
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How did you come to be a writer? Was there a key moment that sent you in this direction or do you think it’s something that has always been in you?
I think the desire to write has been in me from a very early age. I was a really avid reader as a child and if I read a book that I liked I often wanted it to carry on after the ending, so I used to write extra little stories and episodes for the characters. This was around the age of eight or nine. Also I’d write poems or sometimes little children’s novels of my own but these would never get beyond the first chapter because of course I was at an age where I would lose interest in new projects quite quickly. My father still has box loads of these stories and scribbles from that time. Another thing is the fact I was surrounded by it from an early age. My mother wrote novels and short stories and poems and my dad painted and wrote poetry and I think there’s an element that when you’re a child you think that what your family does is the same for every family, so to me writing always felt completely natural. In terms of doing it professionally, well that took much longer due to financial constraints. When I came out of university I didn’t think I would be able to make a living out of it so I went and did something completely different and had a management career first. It wasn’t until I had my children and they were growing up a bit that I was able to return to writing. So it was something I always wanted to do but I’m something of a late developer in terms of actually doing it for a living.
What for you are the biggest challenges of writing?
I find novels more challenging than short form simply because you have to keep so much in your head! And also with my novels I’ve tried to do something different with each one. So for example, with The Silk Factory the challenge was to write a dual narrative: one story is a contemporary haunting story while the other one is set in the weaver’s rebellion of 1812 so they’re very different and require a different idiom. In fact, everything about them is different… and yet I had to try and weave them together so that there was a balance, so that neither story lost its dramatic tension and then of course I had to bring them together at the end. So in terms of structure that was the most challenging thing I’ve attempted. The main danger with it is that when you write a dual narrative, the reader finds one story more interesting than the other and becomes annoyed when they have to switch but happily from the feedback and reviews I’ve got I seem to have managed to pull it off. It’s a bit like juggling really so I suppose sometimes you set yourself challenges to try and learn something new by doing something you have never tried before.
And the biggest joys…?
On the kind of micro level, I think it’s the feeling you get when you’re writing. It’s something that happens when you’ve been writing a while and you get, as people say, “in the zone”, the hairs kind of stand up on the back of your neck. It’s when you get the feeling that things are taking off and you almost can’t control it; you’ve just got to get all this down on paper. I think that’s very enjoyable.
On a wider level, once you’ve finished something, particularly with a novel because it’s taken such a long time, there is a huge satisfaction in getting it out there and finding out that people have enjoyed it. So if you get good reviews or people email you and tell you what they liked about it or tell you what they thought about the characters, you realise that it’s become quite real for the reader in the same way that it was real for you in that year or so that you were writing it. I think that’s very satisfying.
Do you write to music, silence, a personal soundtrack?
I really like silence. In fact, silence would be ideal! Ambient noise in the background is fine, but if it’s a case of someone requiring my attention that’s a problem. I try to avoid distractions like the phone or the doorbell. In pursuit of this I go to the library quite often, particularly if I’ve got to do a first draft, and I’ll stay there for about eight hours, so it’s literally like a normal working day and what I find is that it’s a bit like sending a bucket down a well. I find I need to go quite deep and it takes me about two hours to get to that point I mentioned previously where I can’t write quickly enough to get everything down on paper. So if I’m working somewhere where there are a lot of disturbances it can be enormously frustrating as it can take you so long to get to a point where your imagination is really buzzing and then that concentration can be broken so easily, and when that happens some of the magic is gone.
Do you schedule time to write or is it more a spontaneous, as and when matter?
I schedule a whole day when I’m writing a first draft but I probably won’t go to the library everyday as I find I can edit in much shorter bouts. I like to write longhand, which I know is terribly old fashioned, but I find that the tone of the writing is different compared to when I type. It’s now reached the point where there is a particular divide, so for example when I want to make something up I write longhand but when I’m editing and want to use the more analytical part of my brain I associate that with the keyboard.
Also I should say that an awful lot of the work, particularly if you’re writing historical novels, is research. I spend a lot of time researching, in fact I think it works out to a year researching and a year writing. Another thing, and I expect most writers would say this, but a lot of the work isn’t actually the pen to paper stuff. You spend a lot of time away from that figuring out things in your head so in that respect it does take up a lot of my life but I’m not sitting there with pen in hand every day, as it were. Also sometimes you get stuck on a plot point and it’s better to just let things brew. If you force it you can end up going down a blind alley, whereas if you step away from it for a while your unconscious mind will solve the problem. Ironing’s good for that!
Do you know the ending before you start or does it reveal itself along the way?
I always know the beginning and the ending and I sometimes know a few climactic scenes along the way for instance, but then the rest of it I don’t know. It’s the act of exploring how I’m going to get from A to B that, for me, is the joy of it. I start with a kind of ‘gappy’ outline, but I think if I had absolutely everything planned out then I would probably lose interest and feel that I had already told the story to myself. However, the problem with that approach is that if you let your characters develop as you write you can find that this affects the story to the point that your original plot ideas no longer fit. It’s like a map where old roads become overgrown and new ones get built. But so far, four books in, I have always come to the same ending I originally set out with. This may be because I will have visualised it before I get there, the setting and the atmosphere of that scene, and as a result it has such a strong grip on my imagination that it acts like a beacon that I’m aiming towards.
Where do you go for feedback / constructive criticism? Why?
There are a couple of stages to this. Initially I meet up with a small group of writers: people who I think are very perceptive readers and are of great help. What I’m looking for here is the first response as a reader. I’ll ask questions like “what do you think the character was thinking or feeling during this scene?” and then of course I can see if it matches how I wanted the character to come across. Has it worked, or are they responses which I’m not expecting? This can result in me changing the scene, or perhaps spark something that I hadn’t previously considered. Later on of course it goes to my agent and my editor and that’s really good because I have a fresh pair of expert eyes on the work, after the first draft is finished, and again their input can be extremely useful.
When I was first starting out as a writer I was a member of many writers’ groups. In fact before I started getting work published there were perhaps only two or three years where I didn’t have somebody to bounce my ideas off. I would miss it now if I didn’t have that resource. I think writers’ groups are invaluable, as are courses. There are quite a lot of good short courses around like the Arvon Foundation or one day masterclass courses. Though I wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to do an undergraduate degree in creative writing as they didn’t exist when I was starting out. Not even the UEA one, which was the trailblazer. I took a degree in English Literature, which proved very useful when I started writing historical fiction as I already have a sense of the idiom of the different periods I’ve chosen to write about, but if I was starting out now I would do a BA in Creative Writing like a shot.
Do you get distracted? Dispirited? What keeps you going during these moments?
I’m quite focused so I don’t tend to get distracted, though time put aside in the diary certainly helps. However, I do sometimes get dispirited and what I find the most dispiriting is when you’re writing historical fiction and you know what you want to do with the story, but then the facts don’t match your ideas. And then you think “Oh damn” and you can’t do what you wanted to do. I’m very keen on sticking to the facts and I want to make sure it’s all credible and plausible so when this arises it can cause a lot of headaches. An example would be a book I wrote called The Poet’s Wife about the poet John Clare who went mad. I wrote it from the point of view of his wife, Patty, who was trying to deal with his madness. I knew there needed to be some kind of redemption in the ending but as I looked further and further into the family history I realised that this was going to be very difficult to do as the facts were so bleak. So it was a great challenge to find an acceptable redemptive point. I managed it on this occasion but sometimes in can be really difficult in historical fiction to find an ending which will be satisfying to the reader but doesn’t distort what actually happened. A lot of the time it’s about choosing the right place to stop!
Your short story “The Quality of Mercy” is on the CUT site. A key part of the story revolves around the faith of the chief protagonist, Reverend Tiller. Is this something that particularly interests you as a theme?
Faith is a key factor for character in this story but I think that the idea of loss is more of a key theme. Reverend Tiller has recently lost his wife and it’s this that causes him to go into a decline which threatens his faith. However what interests me most in that story is loss and the different ways people deal with it. Although saying that, I suppose I do find myself dealing with religion more often that perhaps some other writers do, again because of writing historical fiction. If you go back into the 19th century or before, it played a much greater part in people’s lives. For example, church was one of the main hubs of people’s social lives and that belief system was what shaped their attitudes, so I have found myself researching religion quite a lot as part of my work. And it’s always interesting to see how people behaved within a certain moral or religious code.
Another theme in the story seems to be the significance of small moments, the little details of life and nature that are noticed by the protagonist but have a deeper meaning than may be initially apparent. Is this something that features in your longer work? Are you attuned to these things in your own life and if so, do you think this is particularly related to the mind-set of being a writer?
Oh very much so. I think I definitely use small moments to signify deeper meanings. One example in my longer work would be in my book The Moon Field. The main character George has just returned injured from the first world war. On his way home he walks down a kind of lover’s lane where the trees are all carved with names and hearts and George stops and carves the name of his dead friend and the date that he died. It’s a small thing, but it’s an act that absolutely sums up his anger and his inability to adapt to being a civilian again. So yes, I think I do look for small things that can carry a lot of meaning, although I think to an extent everybody invests actions or objects or occurrences with complex meanings at times. They’ll be something that’s very important to us but it wouldn’t be important to anybody else, for instance. And as a writer you’re probably even more attuned as you’re always observing and reflecting. Also, as a reader, it’s these moments in stories that satisfy you the most as you interpret it in your own way and, in doing this, the act of reading becomes less passive and a more interactive experience because you’re supplying the missing meaning. And what’s even more interesting is that if it’s done cleverly enough there may even be layers of meaning that different readers will pick up on and interpret in different ways.
You’ve written four novels. Is it always apparent that an idea will have the legs to be a novel or did some start out as shorter forms?
Actually none of them have transformed from short to longer form. I think what happens is that I get the idea and then decide whether it should be a poem or a short story or something bigger. If it involves just one strong image then usually I’ll think that’s a poem or maybe flash fiction. If there’s one pivotal moment then usually that’ll become a short story and if there’s a range of themes or it’s a big topic then probably I’ll think that will work best as a novel. And I won’t know if it has the legs to be a complete novel until I’ve written four or five chapters. The reason for this is that by this point the ideas are flowing thick and fast, it’s kind of like a bushfire that’s running off in all directions and when that happens it’s very exciting because I know that this is going to interest me enough to go the distance. I’ve had two pieces of work that didn’t make it past the chapter five test and both of these were when I was first starting out writing novels. So I had two attempts that failed and then the third attempt worked. It was a bit dispiriting at the time but now I look back and I’m glad I stopped when I did because if I had forced myself to carry on I could have spent a year on it and it wouldn’t have been very good. In that regard it’s best to trust your own judgement and know when you should abandon ship rather than trudging on and just having it become a labour rather than a joy. Even though there’ll be days when it does feel laborious, I think overall, if it’s something you’re looking forward to getting back to and it’s a pleasurable act then you know you are on the right track. Another point is I think that when the subject matter chimes with an underlying concern of your own, that’s when the story really takes hold. If you can see patterns in the themes that interest you then that can help when you are assessing a new idea and working out whether or not to proceed with it.
What is the bigger challenge for you, putting stuff in or leaving stuff out?
Taking stuff out is very tricky. I’m good at pruning a passage that’s slowing the story down and I can be quite ruthless when necessary. However, it can be really difficult if it’s a suggestion from outside. Say, for example an editor wants you to remove a chapter or a subplot. Now, I’m willing to do this. If it makes it a better book, then absolutely, but I find it hard. I think the reason for this is that my writing is quite tight, and by that I mean there are tight links between the chapters and the worry is that if you pull a thread the whole thing might unravel. It takes me a long time to figure out how I can excise something and then heal up the gap, as it were. So yes, adding things is much easier as it’s a lot less complicated a process.
What do you look for in the books and stories you read yourself? What makes you rate someone’s writing?
Well, as well as the obvious things such as characters that you like, and a satisfying ending, I think that the texture of the writing is really important. I like books where the very writing is beautiful or interesting. I like apt images and elegantly turned sentences, language being used to create layers of meaning. And as far as characters go I like psychological depth, and to feel that the writer has insight. I like to learn something and to visit a world that I’ve never visited before. All of those things go into making a good book. Some of my favourite writers are Helen Dunmore and Rose Tremain. I also recently discovered the writer Sue Monk Kidd and I enjoyed her two novels very much, and they contained all of those elements that I’ve just listed.
Just one final question, you mentioned in an earlier conversation that you sometimes write on location. Could you tell us a bit about what that was like?
Well I’ve always been to settings to research them, but as I wrote The Silk Factory I thought that as I had such a fantastic range of settings I’d try something new and try writing on location. By that I mean writing the scene in the actual place where it’s set. The book took me to various silk factories so I could write among the looms, which enables you to get all the sense impressions: the noises and the smells and how the fabric is produced, etcetera. But it also took me to a Georgian barracks and to an Iron Age fort and to a hazelnut copse in the middle of winter with snow on the ground. And I thought it was really interesting how actually writing in the setting produced ideas. For example, when I was writing in the hazelnut copse, I was really struck by how completely monochrome the scene was: the black branches of the trees and then the snow and then I imagined the character, a girl called Effie, in dull grey dress. And I wanted to use this scene as the point where she meets a young soldier and I think that as I was writing in this monochrome scene, when the soldier arrived I thought I’d have him in a scarlet coat. I think it worked really well as she’s living this dull, grinding life of toil and then suddenly into her life arrives this soldier and the red coat indicates vitality, exoticism and excitement coming into her life and I don’t think I would have got that idea had I not been there writing on the spot. Also writing at the barracks was a great aid as it was huge and it helped me write it from the perspective of how it would have looked to the villagers down below, and it would have been totally overwhelming. As a result, I think that feeling seeped into the book, the contrast between the might of the garrison on the hill and relative powerlessness of the weavers working down in the factory below and that any rebellion they attempted was inevitably going to be put down.
I think if you write out in the countryside it’s a bit like a director working on a stage. You can use what you see almost as props and walk your characters into the scene and almost edit the scene as you look at it, removing any anachronistic features in your mind and superimposing what would have been there that at that time. It’s all much easier if you’re actually there and I think it’s an approach that I’ll try again. I recommend it!
It’s been lovely talking to you Judith. Thanks for your time.
You’re very welcome. Thank you.