For our last Friday Favorites interview, we spoke to Kathy Kimbray, author of A Shifting of Stars.
This week we’re talking to author Laurence Westwood, author of The Willow Woman.
I’ve already read and reviewed The Willow Woman, and I really enjoyed it. Here’s my full review.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a semi-retired corporate investigator for the software industry here in the UK. I regularly lecture on IP enforcement at the University of Warwick. For my sins, for the last five years, I have also been a full-time carer for my elderly mother – which says a lot about how life doesn’t always work out quite how you expect!
Do you stick to a regular writing schedule?
I try to be consistent and write in the morning and then fret about the plot in the afternoon, though that is not always possible. I am often still pondering a problem long after midnight…I think self-knowledge is an important part of learning to write. Everyone is different physically and emotionally, and what might work for one person will not necessarily work for another. Some people write better at night than in the daytime. And no one should ever worry about how long they are able to write for. Four hours of writing a day is about my limit, or else I would be useless the next day. As in all other aspects of life, it is always best to be oneself and not worry too much about what other people are doing. There is nothing more damaging to a writer than making pointless comparisons….
In terms of your writing style, do you outline first or do you come up with the story as you write it?
This again is about self-knowledge, figuring out what works for you as a writer just by sheer practice. I would love to outline as I suspect the writing process would be a lot easier. But every time I have tried to create an outline I got bored in a matter of minutes! Instead, I tend to work with a single idea or a rough impression of the situation in which the characters find themselves at the start of the story and then get writing. This is both fun and scary: fun because I don’t know what’s going to happen, and scary for the exact same reason. In a sense, I am investigating the crime at the same time as the characters. At the start of every chapter, I am asking myself the question: ‘What is going on here?’ So there is a lot of staring out of the window. I re-write each chapter three times until I put it to bed. I carry on in this way until I reach the end of the novel. Then I begin writing again from the very start to sort out any problems in the storyline, writing each chapter again three times. And then when I finish the novel for the second time, I begin again to work on the language, again writing each chapter about three times – sometimes more! So in effect, each chapter has been written at least nine times before the novel is properly finished. This is a time-consuming and exhausting process but I enjoy it and it seems to work for me. I think something magical happens in the re-writing process. It is like the story becomes more real to me…and hopefully to the reader.
What was your inspiration for setting both of your novels in China?
Inspiration is perhaps the wrong word, more like desperation. I was struggling to write, struggling to figure out how to put myself down on paper. This goes back to the idea of self-knowledge I was speaking about earlier. It was as if I was searching for my subject and therefore who I was as a writer. Then one evening I remembered a Japanese TV series from the 1970s which was based on the Chinese novel from the Song Dynasty entitled The Water Margin (aka The Outlaws of the Marsh). What happened next is hard to explain but, having no knowledge of Chinese history, or law, I suddenly had the crazy (and happy) idea that I could write a mystery novel set in Song Dynasty China. And a couple of years later, following on from Song Dynasty China, I suddenly had a second crazy idea I could set a mystery novel in modern China. Instead of listening to those who say you should write what you know, I think you should always write the stories that you are drawn to – or that which fascinates you. It is in those stories that you will find yourself.
Who was your favorite character to write in The Willow Woman and why?
I think of every major character as some aspect of myself. So it’s a mystery to me why there is always one character that is easier to write than the others. My favourite in The Willow Woman is Fatty Deng, the procuratorate investigator (similar to a D.A. investigator in the U.S.), whose thoughts, feelings and actions seem to just flow out of me. Though he doesn’t always do the right thing, to me he is the moral centre of the novel. Just thinking about him makes me smile.
How much research went into writing The Balance of Heaven and Earth, which takes place in China in 1085? Was it important to you to portray your characters and settings accurately?
It took me a long time to become properly familiar with the Song Dynasty and to source the necessary reference books and academic papers. Fortunately, since the 1980s the Song Dynasty has been a period attracting growing historical research so there is a lot of material now out there. To me, it is very important to get the historical and cultural facts right, but – and here’s the catch to writing historical fiction – the novel must still resonate with the sensibilities of the modern reader. It is for this reason that anachronistic attitudes often abound in all forms of historical fiction, though I do try to keep these to a minimum. Also, if you are not looking to horrify the modern reader, and you wish to create a world that the modern reader would wish to return to time and time again, certain historical details might need to be written around or overlooked. Does the reader looking for an enjoyable mystery really need to know that the average life-expectancy of a woman in ANY pre-modern society was about 35 years due to the rigours of childbirth? Sometimes yes…but most often no.
What types of books do you read for fun?
These days I tend to read mainly history and biographies as reading fiction seems to interfere with my own writing!
If you could spend a night hanging out with three authors, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
I think Ray Bradbury, James Clavell, and Jane Austen.
I have always loved Ray Bradbury’s writing and he had a lot to say about the creative process. His book, Zen and the Art of Writing, is a classic.
James Clavell was in the British Army during the Second World War and was captured by the Japanese on the fall of Singapore and sent to the notorious Changi prison camp. Somehow he survived and went on to write famous movie scripts and novels. And, despite his terrible experiences at the hands of the Japanese soldiers, still found it within himself to fall in love with Japanese culture. His work ethic was second-to-none.
And finally, though occasionally writers do not resemble their novels, I suspect sitting down to dinner with Jane Austen must have been a lot of fun! I doubt there has ever been a more intelligent and witty novelist.
Which classic or popular book do you hate?
I’m not much of a hater when it comes to books, though a pet peeve of mine is literary fiction that addresses (in the most beautiful prose possible!) issues that genre fiction has already addressed so much better. And I am not just speaking about Ian McEwan…. Oh, and for some reason, I find Stephen King completely unreadable. I have no explanation for this. He is such a great guy.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
I cannot possibly choose five favourite books, but here are five that have left a lasting impression on me!
Memoir, autobiography…I am not quite sure what this is…but it is the wonderful story of an animal-loving 19th Century doctor who was not only beloved by European royalty for his healing skills but who also worked day and night to treat the poor during cholera and diphtheria epidemics, and then went on to build the house of his dreams on the island of Capri. I discovered a dusty 1930s edition in my school library at the age of 13 and was entranced. Some passages might offend the more sensitive modern reader though….
This, in my view, is historical fiction writing at its finest. An incredible novel that describes a pivotal time in American history and the remarkable man caught up in the centre of the storm.
This non-fiction account of the development of the atomic bomb during the Second World War is simply amazing. It is accessible even for the non-scientific minded. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Though it has its modern detractors (for a variety of reasons), James Clavell’s novel of an Englishman becoming a samurai in feudal Japan left a powerful impression on me when I first read it at about the age of 15. It is the novel that made me want to be a writer.
Simply a science-fiction masterpiece.
Finally, leave us with your favorite bookish quote.
“With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.”
Gandalf at The Bridge of Khazad-dûm,