Tuesday, 6 March 2012

In conversation with... Erinna Mettler

Hello Erinna! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of your first novel Starlings. Can you tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you Silvia. Starlings is a set of 18 episodes taking place in Brighton. At first they appear to be unconnected but as you read it becomes clear they are very much linked together. The stories span decades and familial generations and cover quite a few of Brighton’s cultural and historical events, World War 2, the mod/rocker riots and the burning of the pier to name a few. It’s about life in a city and how every incident and every individual is related to everything else.

Some of your short stories were included in anthologies but this is your first published work of fiction. How does it feel to be a published author? What kind of journey led you to publication?

A: It’s amazing seeing your book on the shelves in a bookshop next to novels written by ‘real’ authors. Starlings is in the local books section in Brighton Waterstones next to all these amazing writers I really admire, it’s such an honour to be there. The first time someone wants to publish something you have written is such a confidence boost but for a publisher to actually want to publish a whole book is almost too unbelievable. I kept thinking it was all a joke and they were going to change their minds right up until publication day.

I didn’t write anything creative from the time I left school until my late thirties. I’d just had my second child, and I was approaching a landmark birthday, and I knew I had to do something for me or I would go insane, so I enrolled on a creative writing course at Sussex University. It was purely on a whim having seen the brochure in a doctor’s waiting room. A few weeks later I was in a room full of strangers reading 1,000 words of prose, I was so nervous the paper was shaking as I read. Luckily most people seemed to like it, and they were a great bunch, I still see some of them to share work in progress. The course was two years and most of Starlings was written while I was there.

I caught the bug. I wrote everyday when the kids had gone to bed, stopped watching TV, worked at weekends when my husband was home to look after the children and generally became possessed by it. After 9 months I had a novel so I sent it out to about 20 agents and publishers. I got a lot of rejections but I also got a lot of encouragement, even from publishers who said it wasn’t right for them. Two publishers were very interested. I saw a call for submissions from Revenge Ink in Latest Homes Magazine. I sent them a sample and they asked for the manuscript. They got what I was trying to do straight away, made a few editorial suggestions and took it on. The whole process took two years from my first rejection letter to the book hitting the shelves – which is very quick I think.

It’s a myth that you absolutely have to have an agent to get published – there are a lot of independent publishers accepting speculative submissions, you’re not going to have a lot of marketing weight behind you but you will be published. The independents seem gutsier to me anyway, more willing to take on work that isn’t a sure thing but has something different to offer. Almost all the rejections I got from agents couldn’t fit the book into a category. Of course some of them just didn’t like it and I’m still waiting to hear from a few…

Brighton is as much a main character as all the lives you show us glimpses of. How has the city inspired you? If landmarks were changed, do you think that you could have set your novel in any other city and obtained the same result?

A: No. Not this story. This story is about Brighton and nowhere else. It comes from observing how life happens here. It has a particular rhythm, maybe it’s to do with the sea. Sometimes I think the sea is so important to Brighton it feels like half of the town is hidden under the waves like we’re in the half of Atlantis that survived the flood.

The book is very much about a city. Only in a city do you get the combination of interaction and distance between individuals. I could have written a set of stories about London or Wakefield (which are the only other cities I’ve lived in for any amount of time) used the landmarks and myths of those places, but Brighton has a unique feel to it, the architecture, the sea and the people. It has separate ‘villages’ all with very different feelings but at the same time everything is a part of the whole. It feels like a big city and a small town all at once. I never go into the centre without bumping into at least one person I know, sometimes several, and then it has its characters – the quirky individuals everyone recognises, the bird lady, the man with the stripy socks, the zombie man. London would have been too big, you can go for months without seeing the same person twice and I wanted to show connection - even if it’s only obscure connection. There is also a wealth of beauty to describe here, particularly The West Pier. It’s typical that one of the defining tourist attractions in the city is a burnt out wreck but it looks amazing in most weathers. Of course Brighton has its seedy, dirty side so that has great appeal for any author. It also has more than its fair share of urban myths, and people talk to each other a lot here so you get to hear a lot of stories. If you want to know about Brighton I recommend you get on a bus and listen. It’s a great way to pick up stories.

You studied Film at the University of Kent and worked in London as a research and information officer at the British Film Institute. Did these experiences influence the way you wrote Starlings? A daisy-chain novel like yours would translate very well into film.

A: Wouldn’t that be fantastic! The film rights are up for grabs! I’m not a film maker but I like to describe things as if I were seeing them on the screen. I’m as influenced by movies I’ve seen as I am by books I’ve read. I was recently asked at a dinner party which sense is the most important to me and I think it has to be sight. You can tell someone so much by describing a scene in detail, the surroundings, the actions, even the way the sky looks. I will often sit with a notebook and just write down what I see. It sounds obvious but I will see something completely differently to the way someone else sees it, we all pick out different things to notice. My background has taught me to keep a lookout for everything that might be of some significance, the smallest thing can be an expression of intent in a film. I think this is the same of literature, the way a flower looks in chapter one can be greatly significant to the outcome of the novel. Some people don’t like the descriptive style, they want to get on with the plot, but I think it’s important to know as much as possible about the things you are reading about in order to experience them fully.

A lot of people have said that Starlings would make a great film but I’m not sure, it has no linear narrative, it flits around between characters and decades and it certainly doesn’t have a coherent plot to speak of. It certainly wouldn’t be mainstream. I think it’s the visual style that makes people think that. I’m flattered that they do and I’d like to see someone try – there’s a challenge for you.

Starlings is a beautiful title: so simple and so evocative. Did you deliberately choose not to have a photograph of starlings – famous for their evening “dance” around Brighton’s West Pier – as the cover of your book?

A: Basically we are the starlings. They are an amazing sight dancing around our skies, we’re very lucky to have them. I was trying to show that the characters are individuals but that everything they do affects everybody else, much as one starling can alter the movement of the whole flock, change its direction with one beat of a wing. Hopefully the individual chapters are like starlings too because they change the way you think about characters and events in previous ones, that was the intention anyway.

Most writers will tell you that they have absolutely no say in the cover art and this is true in my case. My publisher, Amita, just emailed it to me one day – here’s your cover, hope you like it. I do. I like it very much. But at first I was unsure. I thought it was too bleak, not Brighton enough, but she was so right. It really stands out in bookshops and although the book is set in Brighton the human interaction in it is universal, you don’t have to know Brighton to get it. The expanse of blank sky above the houses sums up the voyeuristic feeling I was trying to get across in the novel and of course it’s a bird’s eye view. Incidentally, even though my publisher has never seen my house the cover photograph could be of my roof, I was a bit taken aback when I saw it.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: It’s called Pamela’s Dream and it’s a novel. I’ve written about 25,000 words so far. It’s about a woman who experiences something dreadful and as a result wills herself not to dream so as not to relive it. Then, on the day she allows herself to dream again, she is given a prophecy and the week that follows makes her think about what is important in life. I’ve written the beginning and then end – it has a very open end. I want readers to decide what has happened for themselves rather than have me tell them. I’ve got quite a bit of research to do – I need to visit a palm reader and find out all about palmistry and I’ve being doing a lot of work around dreams. I’m enjoying writing Pamela because she’s not the nicest person in the world, she has a lot of flaws and hopefully this will make her real, even if her story is fantastical. There’s a long way to go and I keep getting distracted writing short stories, which is a more comfortable genre for me. Plotting a whole novel is hard, Starlings has a complicated structure but it was written in chapter-sized chunks. I also know what the project after this one is so I’ve got about 5 years tied up.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I find it very difficult. I have a website and I use Twitter and Facebook and I’m working on setting up a blog now. I don’t want to keep bugging people but really it is the only means I have to publicise my novel. I value feedback too. I don’t think people tell you what they think enough even with all the access to immediate communication. I really like hearing people’s opinions. I’ve talked about Starlings at a lot of Book Groups and it’s always a great evening, there’s always something new that I hadn’t thought about before. I got an actual letter the other day – two pages handwritten – that was wonderful. I do spend time on the web but I think it pays off, it gets the attention of people who wouldn’t normally come across your work and it also means I can interact with other authors which is always a good thing. I have to be disciplined though, I have to make sure I write my 2,000 words a day no matter what, and not get too bound up in discussions on BBC scheduling or whether or not Pippa Middleton deserves such a massive advance (not, by the way!)

What one fundamental piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: You need to be able to judge what good writing is. Join a writing group to find out what works and what doesn’t – feedback is essential. Often you will know what the strengths and weaknesses of your writing are but will push them to the back of your mind, in a good writing group people will point them out to you and you will get to read what other people are doing. If what you have written is any good someone will publish it and you will know deep down if it is any good. Don’t give up because people say no. Someone will eventually say yes.
Lastly, would you like to explain us what Rattle Tales is and how you are involved in it?

A: Rattle Tales emerged from the MA in Creative Writing at Sussex University. Like many MAs it was workshop based, write a piece, read it to the group and invite discussion. When it had finished we all wanted to carry on doing that so we met up once a month at each other’s houses to discuss work over wine and unusual crisps. We also went to spoken word events in Brighton and one night we thought - why don’t we just stage our own? We wanted to keep the writing group format so decided to involve the audience by asking for discussion after each reading. The audience are given football rattles to shake when they want to ask a question or make a point – just to make the event a bit more lively and a bit less classroom. There are duck calls too, but these keep going missing so I’m not sure how long they will feature! There are about ten of us in the group and it’s a truly co-operative affair, everyone has an equal say. The first night was incredible, we staged it at the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton, which is a fantastic little venue, and it was a great success. It’s now a quarterly event and we ask for submissions from any writers willing to read their work and take questions. All the events so far have been sold out and it’s grown too big for the Marlborough, people had to sit on the floor at the last one. The stories we choose are usually a bit out there, so there’s a lot to discuss. If anyone wants to submit they should look at our website www.rattletales.org.

Thank you for your time!

For a chance to win a copy of Starlings, all you need to do is click here and fill in the form. The competition will close on the 19th March at 1pm. Good luck!

2 comments:

Crafty Green Poet said...

Just received my copy of Starlings, thanks! I'm very much looking forward to reading it, once I've finished Bleak House!

Crafty Green Poet said...

I really enjoyed this book, it's brilliant! I'll review it on my blog soon for the Reading Challenge!