Andrea Gillies is the author of The White Lie. Her debut book, the memoir Keeper: One House, Three Generations, and a Journey into Alzheimer’s, won both the Wellcome Book Prize and the Orwell Prize and her latest book, The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay, is out in a couple of weeks. Today she's telling us a little about her writing process and her journey to publication.
Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
In the lighter months I like to start at about 6am, make a pot of tea, put on a sweater (this is Scotland after all) and make a writing nest, which is basically a vast organisation of cushions in the bed. The ideal is to write for two hours before I’m properly awake (at 8am the dog needs to go out). There’s lots of evidence that creativity is at its peak very early, when we’re still residually in a dreaming state. I’m a morning writer. By 2pm concentration is waning, at just about the same time that the dog needs to go out again. I live in the city of Edinburgh, and Ludo the greyhound and I wander the 19th century streets, or stride along beside the canal, looking at ducks and barges. Walking is good for thinking about plot, and untying plot knots. It’s also good for feeding my Instagram habit. Sometimes after this there is napping, or shopping, or maybe just pondering while looking at art books, giving the linguistic neurons a rest. On a good day and with a following wind, I will get going again and work until 6.30pm, when Eric gets home and we switch into cooking mode. I only work in the evenings if a deadline is looming, and even then, not usually for very long. The brain needs to reboot, and Box Sets do it for me. Officially I don’t write at weekends, but if one of the characters starts talking to me, or I realise that I’ve gone astray with the plotting, a 90 minute session of mad typing on a Saturday morning isn’t unknown. Eric’s reading the papers then and I can get away with being anti-social. My children are young adults now and don’t live with me any more, though they’re still in the city and we see each other often, which is lovely. My writing routine was rather different when they lived with me.
When you are writing, do you use any celebrities or people you know as inspiration?
I never use people I know, because that seems like an infringement of intimacy. They’d recognise themselves, and be offended that I considered them an ideal model for a man who flirts outrageously with his sister in law (as Luca does, in The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay). They’d think it wasn’t just their physical type that I borrowed, and that I saw something in them – perhaps psychopathy – that I decided was ripe for novelizing. No. The answer is always no. But I do use actors’ faces sometimes, to get a fix on how someone looks and moves, the way the light plays in their eyes and the way they talk.
In The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay, when Nina’s husband Paolo was talking to her in my head, I suddenly realised that I could see his face, and that he was Chris Noth (aka ‘Big’ in Sex and the City, and ‘Governor Florrick’ in The Good Wife). This kind of borrowing always starts with the character themselves, who’s then fleshed out for me by a face that pops into my head. It never starts with the face. In the novel I’m just finishing, which is called Waiting in the Woods, the central character, a middle aged nun, acquired Judi Dench’s face in the middle of the first draft, and hearing Judi saying the lines has helped edit them. Which when you think about it is rather an odd thing, and Judi might not like it.
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
I always choose Jane Eyre, and have tried to ring the changes by pretending that another book has ever impressed me more, but the truth is that it hasn’t. Charlotte Bronte more or less invented the psychological novel and Jane is a living, breathing, stubborn, courageous, honourable, romantic, stoical and wonderful soul. To be able to do that, to make someone so real out of words, is an astonishing thing, and it’s a rollicking good read, besides. I try to soften the monotony of my devotion to Jane Eyre by sneaking in another handful of favourites that are almost as dear to me, which is exactly what’s about to happen here. If there was a fire I’d have to snatch Middlemarch (George Eliot), something by Edith Wharton (probably The House of Mirth), and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, as well. I don’t seem to have breached the First World War, in these selections, but that’s how it goes.
What is your writing process? Do you plan first or dive in? How many drafts do you do?
The one-line pitch of the story is the first thing that comes, and then there’s a cinematic moment that encapsulates the novel. These arrive in my head unsolicitedly, like toast out of a toaster. In the case of The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay, I saw Nina in her Greek island hospital, telling a story about heartbreak that she was confident she understood, and realising as she told it that she’d got it all wrong. I saw that there was a love triangle, one that Nina believed was the stable basis of her life, but which was about to collapse, leaving chaos in its wake. I’m interested in the idea of self-knowledge being part of our experience of middle age (or so we tell ourselves), a confident narrative path we see leading from here back into the past, and how that can often be completely self-deluding. I began to jot down a storyline in a notebook. I had a scenario and then, very quickly, characters, a family, two very different families. After that a series of scenes offered themselves, illustrating the road to Nina’s downfall and the possible road back. I wrote it out of order, like a film is made, by paying attention to whatever scene my mind seemed to be working on, and then patching it together afterwards. I work quickly with constant revisions until it reads fluidly, and I’m happy that each chapter moves the story forwards. I print drafts out, read them on paper and attack with a pen, in teeny writing, type like the wind and print out again. There are numerous mini-drafts but my official drafts pattern is this: the first draft is only seen by me and is depressingly inadequate, as all first drafts are. The second draft is seen by my agent; the third draft synthesises her and my own ideas for improvement; the fourth is bought by a publisher and the fifth is done using some or all of their suggestions (or demands, in the case of editing to length).
What was your journey to being a published author?
It all began with dementia, my mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s Disease, which had taken a firm hold of her by the spring of 2005. My ex-husband and I decided to sell our house, and my inlaws sold theirs, and together we bought a big property up in the very north of Scotland, on one of the Orkney islands, so we could be an integrated family and look after her. It all went horribly wrong very quickly, and as a way of coping I began to write a diary of the days. The British newspaper The Guardian published an excerpt, and an agent approached me, and the diary became a book, Keeper. I had been trying to write a novel and couldn’t get it to work, but once I’d written Keeper I got the failing manuscript out of the drawer and reworked it. Writing didn’t seem difficult any more: it was the oddest, strangest thing, as if the experience of someone else’s dementia had proven a kind of a release. That was my novel The White Lie, which is about a landed Scottish family that works hard to preserve a secret, not realising that some of its number know about a devastating second one that could unravel them. Keeper won The Wellcome Prize in 2009 and The Orwell Prize in 2010, and that recognition gave me a huge amount of confidence in my voice. I’m now writing the fourth book, and have the fifth, which is based on the life of an artist during the middle part of the 20th century, ready to go, mapped out in notebooks. After that…. I don’t know what will happen. Part of the excitement of this journey is the not knowing, and then PING – being visited by an idea that refuses to go away.
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
It’s hard to pinpoint the biggest of the myths, because there are quite a few. The most pervasive of them, I suppose, is the two headed monster of riches and lazing. People think we’re idle, and have an easy life, and that we make a lot of money, and both are very wide of the mark, for most of us, swimming along determinedly in the midlist. I work really hard, until I’m word-blind and can do no more, until I can’t think straight and can barely make it to the kettle. I’m not exaggerating that much, either. It’s hard work, writing 100,000 or 140,000 words in the right order. Every day is a huge effort of concentration, taking the draft and editing, deleting, rewriting, honing, deleting, rewriting, for months on end, day after day, going over the same 25 chapters again and again until it’s right. It takes stamina. It can get boring and tedious, and sometimes heads come close to exploding.
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
I’d say, don’t want to do it, just do it. The painters aren’t the people who’d like to learn to paint; they’re the people getting on with painting. It’s easy to intend to write and never do it, and find a reason why it isn’t happening. Don’t wait for the retirement, or the sabbatical, or the weekend, for a chunk of time. You don’t need a chunk of time. Sometimes, when I have maximum family commitments, I work on a book in 30 minute stretches. There was a lot of that when the children lived at home. You can do a lot in half an hour. You could write a brilliant paragraph in 15 minutes, and each little contribution to the book writes the book. It can happen in little crevices of time. I’ve written key scenes of novels while sitting with children in front of The Lord of the Rings, more or less keeping up with the drama and having intermittent conversations, and editing at the same time. You don’t need a Room of Your Own; I’ve never had one. Mostly, I write on the sofa, and in bed. Write the book, but have no illusions. Fame and riches – even making a basic living – are becoming harder and harder to achieve. Publishing has become a hard, merciless business, with too many writers and too many books, and not enough review pages and not enough bookshops to support them. Considering the huge effort it takes to turn out something saleable, a year, two years of work, the rewards are often paltry. Do it because it makes you happy to do it. Sometimes it’s clear to me that I’m the only person I know who loves Mondays.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished the second draft of a psychological drama called Waiting in the Woods. It’s the longest book I’ve written so far, at 140,000 words (it may well be edited back, before publication) and also the most straightforward in terms of technique. Unlike The White Lie and Nina Findlay, which work via narrative looping, going back into the past and illustrating things that colour the present, Waiting in the Woods is a linear narrative that works forwards, from a chance meeting one snowy November afternoon to a dramatic denouement three years later. It’s a cat and mouse game, essentially, between two women, one of them an unorthodox nun (Margaret), who lives at a glorious abbey, and the other a beautiful, unhappy young woman (Isabella) who comes to stay for a weekend. Sister Margaret recognises, in a conversation in the woods, that the two of them have a connection, dating from a tragedy that happened ten years before. She comes looking for Isabella the following summer, triggered by a second event, which is when the psychological game of chess begins. It’s been enormous fun to write and imagine.
The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay by Andrea Gillies is out on 5 May.