Writers Behaving Badly
Lander Hawes interviews Gods Behaving Badly author Marie Phillips.
3:AM: What are your writing habits? Have these changed in the time you’ve been writing?
MP: It took me a long time to get into my routine as a writer. At first I just wrote when I felt like it, as much as I felt like. But that didn’t seem to take me anywhere. Then I imposed a daily word minimum, which helped a bit, but I still found it hard to get started. So I started reading lots of interviews with other writers to see what they did, and it turned out that the vast majority write first thing in the morning. I tried that, and it was miraculous. It made motivating myself so much easier. I think there is something about those early hours (not that early – I don’t start til about 9 a.m.) when you haven’t been distracted by the demands of the day yet. I start as soon as I get up, while my conscious mind is still close to my subconscious, just out of that dream state. I work all through the morning, and then I take a few hours off in the afternoon to do the other things I need to do. Depending on how far I got in the morning I sometimes work in the early evening too, but it’s important for me not to push myself too fast, to give myself time to think away from the computer and let the ideas take shape.
3:AM: How did you begin as a writer? Are there notebooks of poetry for example?
MP: I’ve always loved writing, ever since I was little. The St Christopher’s Primary School creative writing cup is the only prize I’ve ever won for my writing. There were all the stories I had to write for class, and then in the holidays I was always working on some project or other, putting together a newspaper of family events (‘The Mole Express’), or attempting a novel (‘Escape to Marmotteville’ – I obviously liked small animals – but I never got past the first few chapters.) I wrote two short novels in my teens, but I stopped writing creatively when I got to university because I had to invest so much more of my emotional energy in my work. I only started writing again when I was 27 and had made a decision to pursue writing as a career, and now it seems amazing to me that I ever considered doing anything else.
3:AM: Do you feel your fiction has a dialogue with other areas of the arts?
MP: I get my motivation from all over the place, I enjoy good writing wherever I find it and I don’t think that novels have primacy over any other forms. Some of my greatest influences come from film (Charlie Kaufmann, the Coen Brothers) or TV (Six Feet Under, Northern Exposure.)
I think TV and film often do surreal very well because of the visual aspect, and as I like to write surreal things myself, they can really stimulate my imagination. I’m not alone in this — Haruki Murakami is a great admirer of David Lynch for example, and wrote most of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle while watching Twin Peaks.
3:AM: Do you see your work as having predecessors in the English canon? If so who and what are your feelings about them?
MP: I think that Gods Behaving Badly exists within a tradition of comic fantasy writing. By which I mean authors like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and programmes like Red Dwarf on TV. It’s a quintessentially male, blokey form and I think people are surprised that a woman would choose to write in it. But those books are very imaginative, very funny, which is what I try to be as well. They often tend to lack a female perspective though — the women turn up as love interests, if at all. So it’s about time somebody redressed the balance.
Having said that, the work that I’m doing now is quite different and has no fantasy element, so I wouldn’t call myself a comic fantasy writer, rather a writer who has written one comic fantasy novel. And I think that it’s sometimes hard to tell who your influences are until after you’ve finished. In the case of Gods Behaving Badly, I had got all the way to the end before realising that Alice in Wonderland had influenced me — this despite the fact that I had named one of my principal characters Alice!
3:AM: What are you reading at the moment?
MP: I’m reading Helon Habila’s Measuring Time. I haven’t got very far into it yet, but it’s magnificent so far — gripping and utterly convincing. Helon’s a young Nigerian author, and though he’s based in the US now he lived in Nigeria for most of his life, and it’s obvious from the novel that he’s completely intimate with what he’s writing about. A lot of post-colonial literature is written by expats and doesn’t always ring true — there can be a nostalgia for a lost idyll. But this feels real. I’ve got family in Africa and I felt a thrill of recognition as soon as I started. His great skill is the ease with which he reconciles tradition and modernity, and doesn’t fall into the trap of dichotomising them.
3:AM: How do you feel about doing public readings?
MP: I love doing readings! I love the instant rapport that you get with the audience. Everything else with writing is so delayed — you write something, and then later on people read it, and later yet respond. It’s totally different to be standing in front of an audience and getting their reaction that very moment. I’ve only done one reading so far but I’m dying to do more.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Lander Hawes is a Norwich based writer of short stories and novels. He is currently writing full time and is studying for a Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia this year.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 28th, 2007.