1. Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
I don’t really have an average writing day because I have two part-time jobs, so I squeeze in my writing as and when I can. I work three days a week at the House of Commons as a secretary and one day a week teaching creative writing at Westminster University. I have Fridays off, and this is my main writing day. I try and write about 1,000 words, maybe more if I am in the flow. This can take between four and six hours. Over the weekend, I try and write about one or two hours a day. I write straight onto my laptop at my kitchen table, or in bed, or on the sofa. I do have a desk but I rarely write at it, since I spend so much of my other working life at a desk, and I need to feel more relaxed when I write. Sometimes I go and write in a café or in the British Library, especially if my boyfriend is around.
Ordinary life gets in the way of writing. Sometimes I wished I lived alone in a hut, preferably on a remote beach, so I could get more writing done and be one of those obsessional types that never does anything else. Mind you, it’s probably better for my sanity that I have to interact with the world.
2. When you are writing, do you use any celebrities or people you know as inspiration?
I always use people I know as inspiration. All sorts of people, even those I barely know or have only heard about through other people and never met. I need to base characters on psychological behaviour that I know exists. My characters are always amalgams though; I don’t transfer people straight from real life to the page as they need to be filtered through the prism of fiction. I rarely use people I see day-to-day or am very close to as I would feel hampered by self-censorship; having to be too nice about them. It would all get too psychologically fraught. By using people I know less well, my imagination can run free.
Having said that, two of my close friends from Montreal, Mark and Chloé, inspired some of the traits of some of the characters in Smoked Meat, as did various other people I knew in Montreal. But I started writing the book two years after I got back to England. I needed that cooling distance so I could be more observant and objective. I’ve dedicated the book to them and they helped edit many of the stories when I was writing them, so I hope they are flattered rather than appalled to have aspects of their lives appear in prose. They should be flattered as it is because they were charismatic.
In terms of celebrities, I used the singer Pink as part of the inspiration for the character of Sally in ‘Brian, McMurphy and Sally Too’, the first story in Smoked Meat. Pink was popular at the time I was writing it, and her image – feisty and tomboyish but overtly sexual – chimed with how I imagined Sally to be.
Other pop stars have been inspirational to characters in other books I have written. There was a character in an as yet unpublished novel who embodied elements of Nick Drake, Robert Smith from the Cure and Morrissey – basically he was a miserable, introverted muso. He grew in confidence as the novel progressed and ended up as a combination of Pete Docherty and the lead singer of the Strokes, whose name I forget right now.
3. What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
I don’t really think of books in terms of ‘women’s fiction’ as, like most authors, I want to appeal to both men and women and I imagine my favourite female writers did or do too. In terms of a favourite book written by a woman, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is high on my list, because the voice and the setting are so absorbing and it is such a charming, uplifting book. I also love Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons as it is so funny and Music Upstairs by Shena Mackay, because it captures so atmospherically an intriguing milieu of 1960s London. I love all of Katherine Mansfield’s stories and all of Jean Rhys’ Paris novels. Wide Sargasso Sea, her most well known, is, in fact, my least favourite because I find it less intimate in atmosphere, although it is still a brilliant novel. I am sure I have forgotten a favourite and will go back and look on my bookshelf and see something I love that I haven’t mentioned. For me a favourite is a book that stands being re-read over and over again.
4. What is your writing process? Do you plan first of dive in? How many drafts do you do?
I start with a setting and characters and a distinct atmosphere I want to convey. I always have an end point in mind and I write the novel chronologically towards that, although twists and turns occur along the way. Nothing is set in stone and sometimes I take novels along a different track than I first intended.
By the end, I usually find that different themes have emerged in writing, and I have to go back and redraft everything. I do loads of drafts. I am constantly rewriting, shifting passages around and abandoning whole chunks.
With Smoked Meat, I started writing a story about Corinna that became ‘Double Take’, which appears in the middle of the book. Then I wrote about her ex-boyfriend, which became ‘Down To Rue Beaudry’, then I wrote about the couple Corinna jealously observes from her window, which became ‘Roger’s Dream’. The rest of the stories followed on in a similar fashion; a minor character from one story becoming a major character in another. Until I had written a collection.
5. What was journey to being a published author?
To cut a long story short, I won a short story competition in 1998 run by the Asham Trust, which led me to decide I wanted to be a writer. Thirteen years later, I finally got a publisher for Smoked Meat. During those thirteen years as well as Smoked Meat, I’ve written four novels, none of which are yet published, dozens of short stories, some of which are published and have won prizes, and I’ve suffered many rejections, crises of confidence and false dawns. It’s been hard work and I am amazed I’ve stuck out the journey. I never thought I had so much persistence.
6. What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
The biggest myth is that you are going to make loads of money. Very few novelists make a living purely from their books, and even fewer hit the big time, JK Rowling-style. If you want to a more definite route to money go and do something more sensible. You have to want to write for the activity in itself. Any money you make is a bonus.
7. What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
They should just get on and do it. A novel doesn’t get written by talking about it. You should be inspired and you should be entertained by what you are writing otherwise no one else will be, but you do need to put the hours in to finish it.
8. What are you working on at the moment?
I am finishing my fourth novel. I hope to get it published on the back of Smoked Meat. I don’t want to say too much about it right now as it might get me into trouble.
Rowena's Book, Smoked Meat, is out now.