Guest Writer – Interview with Alison May
1) Can you tell us how you got into writing?
It started, as I guess it does for most writers, as a hobby. I think the first thing I tried to write was a play, I co-wrote with my best friend from school when I was about ten. I don’t think we ever finished it, or indeed ever got past writing ‘Our Play’ at the top of a piece of paper.
Fast forward to when I was twenty-five and slightly bored at work, and I signed up for a creative writing course through Birmingham University. That evening class turned into a six year part-time degree, during which I switched from thinking I wanted to be a very serious playwright to writing romantic comedy novels instead.
2) What can you tell us about your current novel?
My latest release is Midsummer Dreams, which is a contemporary romantic comedy inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My full-length novels tend towards the grittier end of the rom-com spectrum, rather than the lighter, fluffier end. I’m interested in all the different ways that people manage to screw up perfectly decent relationships, and then I make jokes about those poor sad messed-up people, but they’re imaginary people so it’s fine.
The novel I’m working on at the moment is my first non-romance book, and is about a mother who’s lost her son, a man who’s lost his mother and a woman who says she can talk to the dead.
3) Why Romance?
Well, why not? Love and death are basically the two main things that fiction writers congregate around, and many of the authors I love are (or were) romance writers for at least part of their career – Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare, Marian Keyes, Terry Pratchett (yes really – Sam Vimes and Lady Ramkin are one of the best drawn couples in fiction thank you very much). I’m not personally particularly interested in romance in the ‘hearts and flowers’ sense, but I’m very interested in love and relationships, so I write about those.
4) What tips would you give to any budding Romance Writers?
Join the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers Scheme (http://www.romanticnovelistsassociation.org/join) – it has limited places and only opens for new applicants in Dec/Jan each year and you have to get in quick, but once you’ve joined you’re a member of the RNA so you get to rub shoulders with a whole load of published authors (and publishers and agents) who are generally generous and supportive beyond any reasonable expectation. You also get to submit your novel-in-progress for a critique from a published author in your genre, which is invaluable.
You were probably expecting tips about creativity and art and finding your voice, and they’re all good and lovely things, but ultimately being a writer is about cracking on and doing it, and joining the New Writers’ Scheme is one of the best ways I can think of to crack on and do it.
5) How do you do your research?
I really don’t if I can possibly avoid it. I essentially write books about twenty and thirty-somethings getting drunk and making poor life choices, which requires very little research for me! Some writers love research – I find it tiresome. My first degree was in history so I think it gives me flashbacks to being at Uni and having to spend whole terms reading about tenth century peasants *shudders*
6) Where do you get your ideas from?
I have no clue, but I’ve never been short of them. Ideas are the easy bit of writing, and they don’t even have to be that good at first glance to build a novel out of – ‘Well it’s sort of like Twilight, but there aren’t any vampires and he’s into kinky stuff’ is a terrible idea, but EL James made it work.
I think I have an ongoing interest in the lies that people tell themselves and the ways in which they self-sabotage, but beyond that I just write about whatever pops into my head, and the problem is usually forcing myself to focus on one idea at a time, rather than trying to come up with an idea to start with.
7) Can you tell us a little about the process of writing a novel?
How long does it take?
As long as it takes. Over recent years I’ve written one full-length novel and one shorter novella each year, I don’t really have a ‘normal’ process for writing a novel. With my first book, Sweet Nothing, I had a couple of months where I was out of work, so wrote 2000 words a day every morning Monday to Friday for eight weeks and got a first draft, and thought ‘Oh this is really easy.’ Of course, that first draft was beyond awful, and I’ve never managed a nice neat 2000 words a day that consistently since.
Some things have stayed constant though – my first drafts are always terrible. I’m a much better editor of my own work than writer! I don’t always write a complete first draft before I start revising anymore though. Usually I get to about 65-70,000 words in and then start revising and write the last 20,000 words after I’ve reworked the first bit. And it’s different for different books – if I’m writing a novella I tend to plan a bit more and work to a bit more of a schedule. With a full length novel I prefer to keep things a less structured at least to start with.
8) What is the allure of writing for you?
You can do it in your pyjamas without leaving the house. What’s not to like?
And now my (slightly more) serious grown-up answer – writing is the love of my life, alongside my husband who is, obviously, also the love of my life. Love is magic like that. There’s always enough of it to go around. I’m generally very dispassionate about writing. I get uncomfortable when people say ‘Oh I just have to write.’ I’ve never really felt compelled to write, but I am much less pleasant to be around if I’m not writing.
9) Can you tell us a little about how you found your publisher?
In the traditional sort of way really – I submitted Sweet Nothing to various agents and publishers and got rejected. Somewhere along the line I moved from having standard rejections to getting ‘We really liked this but…’ rejections (which, weirdly, are way way more disheartening).
At the same time I put the manuscript through the RNA New Writers’ Scheme for critique twice, and my second feedback report suggested submitting to Choc Lit, who are a small publisher of romance and commercial women’s fiction. Happily they accepted Sweet Nothing, and went on to publish Midsummer Dreams, and my Christmas Kiss novellas as well.
10) What did it feel like to see your first novel in print?
Completely awesome. The day my box of author copies of Sweet Nothing arrived I basically sat on the floor stroking them all afternoon. Worryingly, that is not an exaggeration.
11) Can you tell us about some of your central characters?
Essentially I write dysfunctional people who mess up their relationships in (hopefully) interesting ways. Romance readers are always interested in heroes, but I tend not to write big strapping alpha male types.
Probably two of my characters that I love the most are Ben from Sweet Nothing – he’s a mathematician and proper full-on nerd. I really wanted to write a romantic hero who was attractive because of his brain; it’s an urge that I can totally trace back to having been in love with The Doctor pretty much ever since I was allowed to stay up at watch Dr Who back in Peter Davison’s day. At the other end of the spectrum, I also adore Alex in Midsummer Dreams. He’s a total flake; he sleeps around; he has no impulse-control at all – I wanted to get away from the idea in romantic fiction that the heroine is automatically looking for a super-dependable guy who’ll always look after her. If your heroine can look after herself, why not give her a hero who’s just going to be awesome fun?
12) Asking which one of your books is your favourite – may be asking you too much – can you tell us about your favourite bits from some of your books?
At the moment I’m particularly proud of Midsummer Dreams. Books usually develop and warp as you write and edit them, changing (often for the better) but moving away from your original idea. I think Midsummer Dreams is probably the book I’ve written that is closest to the book I set out to write, if that makes any sense at all.
And there’s a scene in a car park in it, which I’m not going to describe in detail, in case you read the book, but writing it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at my writing desk.
13) What is your favourite part of the writing process?
Those very rare moments where you write something and you just know that it’s right. I generally only have about one scene like that per first draft though, so apart from that, my favourite part is the editing and revising. I love taking a book that doesn’t work at all apart and rebuilding it into something good. That’s part of why I love tutoring and mentoring developing novelists as well – you get to help them make their novel work, without having to do any of the tiresome first draft writing.
14) What is the most challenging part of the writing process?
Slogging out the first draft. Ugh.
And, of course, the moment (and there is at least one for every book) where I just know with absolute certainty that the whole thing is a steaming pile of poo, and that I can’t write, and I can’t fix it, and all the previous books were flukes. Those moments are horrible, but inevitable, and actually, I believe, essential to making the book better. If you never reach a point where you think the whole thing is a steaming pile of poo, then I suspect you’re not being sufficiently self-critical about your work.
Huge thanks to Alison for this exclusive INKSPILL interview.
Interview by Nina Lewis
Buy Alison’s books in the AWF Shop