In the next in our series of author interviews, we chat to novelist and poet Claire Dyer (above), who’ll be teaching our seven-week Write Here… in Reading course from February 2019. Claire’s first two novels – The Moment and The Perfect Affair were published by Quercus in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Her most recent novel, The Last Day, was published by Dome Press in February 2018. Here, she tells us about coming up with ideas, why characters drive her work and how the friendships made on creative writing courses can last a lifetime.
How did you become a published author? Did you always want to be a novelist – and who and what helped you along the way?
The answer to the first question is by trial and error! It took me four novels to secure an agent, then four novels with that agent to secure a publishing deal. And, though it was a hard journey, I learnt loads as I went, met some wonderful people and had huge fun making stuff up. I guess I did always want to a writer, but life, work and children happened so it took me a while to get around to it. A lot of this, I believe, had to do with giving myself permission to write. As soon as I thought of writing as a job, it became a way of life and now is a fantastic way of spending time.
I’ve been helped by many, many people. Other writers are, I’ve found, supremely generous beings. Writing retreats, my writing group, literary agents, publishers and readers have been fonts of superb knowledge and support. Writing is seen as a lonely occupation and, when it’s you and your book, it can be. But, outside of this, there’s a massive network of people that can make it a joyous one. Teaching has also proved to be really helpful. My grandfather always said that if you want to learn an instrument, you should take a pupil, as it would force you to learn. I find that teaching inspires me and helps me see more clearly the lessons I should be applying to my own work.
How do you get the ideas for your books?
Books can start from the humblest of beginnings. The Perfect Affair started with a photograph of my late grandmother’s best friend at an office party in the 1960s and a beautiful stained-glass front door in a house near to where I live. The Moment started as an entry for a first-chapter competition. I didn’t enter it in the end but just kept writing. The Last Day began as a story about an artist painting her ex-husband’s new lover, but changed and developed a huge amount as I wrote it. It’s probably sacrilege to say so, but I don’t have a really firm idea of plot at the outset. It grows as I go deeper into my characters’ hearts and minds. I tend to find out what the book’s about when I’m halfway through it.
Are you a morning person or a night owl?
I tend to write in the morning. An ideal writing day would start with a swim then a few hours at the keyboard. I’m definitely not a night owl, though I keep my phone by my bed and send myself emails of thoughts I have during the night so I don’t forget them. I tend to see plot problems more clearly in the dark.
You’re faced with a blank Word document or empty piece of paper in front of you. How do you begin your book?
I’ll have scoped out my characters beforehand, so I try to visualise where they are, what they’re doing and why. Then I just write. The beginning rarely stays the beginning. I tell myself it doesn’t really matter where I jump off from, as long as I jump.
What’s your writing process?
I don’t write every day. I plan out my week and, depending on other commitments – teaching, working for one of my editorial clients, poetry classes, meeting up with other authors, etc – I try and give myself one or two slots in which to write. I find that setting myself a target of 1,600 words per slot works well. Any fewer and I feel I haven’t made an impact, any more and I need to lie down. I have two laptops, one on my desk which is linked to a printer, etc, and another I can move about more easily – and so, depending on what’s happening, I’ll write on one or the other.
Do you work in total silence – or do you prefer to listen to music while you write?
I prefer silence, but living in Reading that’s not always possible. There’s always something going on and, also, quite a few of my neighbours have had building work done recently, so that’s been quite a strain. If and when my husband works from home, he likes to listen to music while he works. But he wears headphones so as not to disturb me.
Where is your desk – and what’s on it?
We have a garden room at the back of the house where I work. It gets quite bright in the summer so I tend to move into the dining room, kitchen or – if it’s really nice – I’ll work in the garden. I’m thinking that, now the kids have both left home, I could move my desk upstairs. But, at the moment, the thought of that’s too daunting, probably because the rooms up there are piled high with poetry books and journals, my teaching files and a host of novels I’ve already read or which are waiting to be read.
What are the greatest obstacles to your writing?
I guess the greatest obstacles are the things I do as a writer – teaching, curating Reading’s Poets’ Café, running my editorial and critiquing business Fresh Eyes, etc – but I wouldn’t be without these things. If I’m in the middle of writing a novel or doing edits, I’ll set aside time to write and just hope that the words flow when I do.
What’s more important to you – characters or plot?
I find it’s the characters who influence and determine the plot, so my answer is characters. What I love best is when they move into my head and my heart, and it’s like I’m telling their story for them. That may make me sound like a bit bonkers, but I particularly loved writing Vita in The Last Day because sometimes I didn’t know what was going to come out of her mouth next.
What are you working on at the moment?
This year I’ve been doing edits to one book and writing another. They’re both with my agent now so I’m keeping everything crossed. I’m also putting together a new book of poetry for possible publication in 2021.
What do you think a creative writing course can do for an aspiring author?
I think it can help to provide a context for them, give them the necessary tools and confidence and, most importantly, it will enable them to work with others who, like themselves, love writing. I’ve found that the friendships made on creative writing courses can last a lifetime.
Write Here… is dedicated to finding talented new authors outside London. We are currently offering affordable, seven-week creative writing courses taught by published authors in Bath, Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Harrogate, Manchester, Newcastle and Reading – beginning in January/February 2019. Each course features a visit from a literary agent.