Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Claire Kendal
Tell us about yourself.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
One of the biggest factors in my life is that I have two careers, one as a novelist, the other teaching at a university. Both are important to me, though it is sometimes challenging to get the right balance between them. I should probably try to tell you some everyday things about myself. I love baking with my daughters. My sister is my best friend. I have a serious aversion to mayonnaise. And I take really long showers. Apart from writing, my other creative passion is sewing and dressmaking (though I rarely have time). A lot of novelists seem to know when they are very young that they will be writers, but I didn’t. When I was a little girl and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, ‘a reader’.
When you name a child, you usually need to negotiate with your partner. When you name a character, it’s a kind of super-power all your own.
There is a special, personal thing about the heroine of my new novel, THE SECOND SISTER. Ella’s middle name, Allegra, only appears once in the book, but it’s a tribute to another Allegra, my grandmother. Quite often I name characters after literary figures. Miranda (Ella’s missing sister) is named after the heroine of John Fowles’s novel, THE COLLECTOR. Miranda’s middle name is Charlotte, after Charlotte Brontë. An important male character in THE SECOND SISTER is called Ted, after Ted Hughes. Sadie was a name Sylvia Plath used. I’ve always loved it, so I managed to get that into THE SECOND SISTER too.
My first novel, THE BOOK OF YOU, was a reworking of CLARISSA by Samuel Richardson. Because many of the characters have counterparts in the eighteenth-century original, their names were pre-determined. I put a personal thing into THE BOOK OF YOU, too. My favourite teacher, Mr Mathieson, died in a car crash during my final year in school. I snuck his name into the novel. It is only a tiny reference, but it means a lot to me that he is there, somehow. All these years later, I can still hear his voice. Speed and accuracy, he would say during our English tests, over and over again, always drawing out the first word.
How long does your first draft take you?
About a year, I think? I sometimes wonder if I would be quicker if I didn’t need to divide my time between writing and my university work. I’m hoping the novel I just started, I SPY, will be faster, because I have planned it more than I ever have before.
Where do you most like to do your writing?
I can write anywhere but mostly I write in my study. My absolute favourite place to write is a hotel room. I think I love hotels because it is creatively stimulating to be in a new place, but at the same time to have a sense of comfort and safety, and the feeling of being looked after. For the most part, you are protected from the demands of ordinary life, and that makes so much difference – it is all too rare.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I wrote three novels before my fourth, THE BOOK OF YOU, was published. l learned from every one of those failed novels, and I’m proud that I kept going. The rejection really hurt, though. I’ll never forget that. I’d begun to think I was too old, and that it would never happen.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
Take every single piece of criticism seriously. I never dismiss anything that any reader, critic, blogger or editor says, even when the point is hard to hear. My sister fell asleep on the sofa with Chapter One of my first novel crumpled beneath her head, so that was a definite clue that something was wrong.
People can tell you what doesn’t work, and what they don’t like, but it’s the writer’s job to figure out how to address the problem, big or small. Doing that is one of the most creative and satisfying things about being a novelist. It’s a process, and it goes on even after the book is published. You apply what you learn to the next novel, and the novel after that. I feel as if each new novel needs to teach me how to write it.
What book do you wish you had written?
I’m not sure I could ever wish to have written someone else’s book, but I’d have to choose His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. It is wise, moving, intellectually sophisticated, gripping and humane. It is exquisitely written and just so inventive. His vision of the world and the people in it is one that I want to share. Perhaps THE SECOND SISTER’s heroine even has a bit of Lyra in her. I hope so, anyway.
If you could be a character in any book, including one of your own, who would you be?
I once did a quiz to find out what literary figure I was. I wanted so badly to be told that I was Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet or even Jane Eyre. But it said instead that I’m Clarice
Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I was shocked at first, but I’ve come to embrace the idea. My husband doesn’t believe in these quizzes, but he thought this one got it right.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
All the time. That’s what makes writing worth doing. And if I don’t surprise myself, then I won’t surprise my readers. Perhaps the most vivid example lately is the character of the serial killer Jason Thorne in THE SECOND SISTER. He crashed into that novel without my expecting him, fully formed, bearing his name and completely undeniable.
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing? And why?
There were so many. I really loved writing the fight that Ella has with her mother and the encounter with the policeman after it. And a big fight Ella has with her ex-boyfriend, Ted. But if I had to choose my absolute favourite scene in terms of writing pleasure, it would have to be Ella’s second visit to Jason Thorne in the secure psychiatric hospital. (Answering this question has made me see that I clearly like writing about conflict.)
Describe your current work in progress in five words.
Aspiring spy flees domestic noir.
About the author...
Claire Kendal was born in America and educated in England, where she has spent all of her adult life. THE BOOK OF YOU is her first novel, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. It was a Sunday Times top ten bestseller and a Richard & Judy Book Club pick. Her next novel, THE SECOND SISTER, will be published in May 2017 in the UK and September 2017 in the US. Claire teaches English Literature and Creative Writing, and lives in the South West with her family.