Edward Hogan: writing about villages, literary versus genre, and coats with big pockets

Edward Hogan is the author of Blackmoor, his first novel which was shortlisted for the was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize and won the Desmond Elliot Prize. His second novel, The Hunger Trace, was published earlier this year and his first YA book, Daylight Saving comes out on 12 February 2012. In 1996, we played for the same football team. This is less relevant.

You can follow Edward on Twitter, check out his profile on the Simon & Schuster website or buy one of his excellent books from your local independent bookshop. Or one of the links above. But mainly the bookshop.

I kicked off our conversation, as follows.

So we’re both handsome, worldly-wise young men, yet we’ve both written about the ins and outs of living in a small town or village. Why do you think that is?

Ha!

Very good. The idea of writing about ‘where you’re from’ is actually quite complicated, isn’t it? The worst review I got for Blackmoor was from my hometown paper. The day before the announcement of a prize for which the book was shortlisted, they went with the headline: ‘Author Paints Bleak Picture of County.’ (!!)

The suggestion was that I was a fraud, and how dare I suggest that Derbyshire has some complicated problems. In my defence, I did also write about the rare natural beauty of the area.

Blackmoor is set in two fictional villages. One is a comfortable semi-suburban place called Church Eaton, which is close to Derby, and hosts only the odd reminder of its industrial past. Church Eaton is very much like where I grew up. The other is Blackmoor, a former coal-mining village which is brought to its knees by factors such as physical isolation, the end of an industry, and the brutal treatment it receives at the hands of governments and institutions. I suppose villages are always about the tension between an individual and a community. They’re lovely places - as long as you fit in.

I was aware that there was this huge historical and political shift (the miners’ strike and its aftermath) that had happened in my county when I was young, but I wasn’t directly touched by it. I wanted to know about that. I was 21 when I started, and writing the book was a process of finding out where I was from. Funny that you can live somewhere pretty much all your life, and still have to do five years of research to write about it. I think you feel the responsibility of getting it right more keenly when you’re from the place you’re writing about.

You’re from further north, no? Chesterfield? Anyway, I guess you lived closer to places like Arkwright Town. Blackmoor is a fictional place, but the strange story of Arkwright - the village that crossed the road - was a big influence on the book.

What was it like for you, writing about villages?

Who’s the interviewer here? Oh go on then.

Not Chesterfield, but near. I was born in Alfreton and we moved to Swanwick when I was about six or seven. Basically, one of a cluster of villages and towns sat between two cities, Derby and Nottingham, and without any real affiliation with either. I bear no malice towards the place I grew up in, but I do remember that all I ever imagined was getting away. And I think that most of my friends felt the same.

At the same time, the idea of being anywhere else seemed (and seems) quite ludicrous to my parents. The generational gap in the villages and towns of England strikes me as less about the difference between vinyl and iPods, more about staying and going. It’s like our parents experienced what used to be there (mining, opencast, other industries), and we can only ever know what’s left. And it’s typically unappealing. So we leave.

Anyway, I think that small places make for great stories essentially. But this isn’t about me, so here’s another question. You say you did five years of research. How did you go about it? What’s your advice to a new writer who just wants to get cracking?

I suppose that was a bit misleading. I was researching as I went along. It was all trial and error with the first book. I wrote six or seven drafts before I even wrote about Beth, who is a central character.

In terms of research, it was fairly haphazard. I spent (and continue to spend) quite a bit of time hanging around local studies libraries. For Blackmoor I read medical textbooks and first person accounts of puerperal psychosis, diaries of women during the miners’ strike, science books about mining, anthropological studies about new-style housing estates, and I also went down a mine at the mining museum in Huddersfield, after which I immediately wrote one of the chapters.

They say write what you know, but I didn’t know anything. In some ways Blackmoor was my first book, but in other ways I rewrote it so completely, so many times, that you could also say it was my third or fourth book.

That’s fascinating that such a central character wasn’t in your first few drafts. Does that mean you subscribe to the ‘get something down then edit like mad’ approach to writing?

It wasn’t something I did on purpose. My first two books grew in a parasitic way, using a bad idea as the host. Similarly, I didn’t write Louisa, the main character in The Hunger Trace, until I was well into the truly awful first draft of something else. She became the driving force of a very different book.

I’m not sure I’d describe it as an ‘approach’, though! I’m still a beginner, and there are a lot of things I haven’t worked out yet. That’s why I’m wary of giving advice. “Do this and you’ll end up like me,” could easily be a warning rather than a recommendation!

One thing I like to do is wake up early and write down anything for a while before I start on the work-in-progress. It’s a way of trawling the depths before I’m properly conscious, to see what muck I can dredge up.

It was during such an early morning session that I came up with the idea for Daylight Saving, my first YA book. I approach those books differently, because there is a genre element. There are certain conventions that have to be dealt with in a thriller (even if you choose to subvert them), so I plan the YA books a bit more, beforehand.

I find your humility just as fascinating. I reckon most people would assume that with two successful novels under your belt, it would be fair game for you to toot your horn a little. It’s something I bang on about a lot on Write for Your Life - the need to stay grounded.

Tell us more about writing for young adults, or the kidz, as I think they’re known these days. Why the change in direction (or slight diversion)? How are you finding it?

I love it! I’d re-watched some of my favourite movies from when I was young. Back to the Future, E.T. etc, and I just thought: well these are obviously brilliantly constructed stories with fantastic central concepts (if there’s a wasted second in Back to the Future, I haven’t found it).

I also noticed, watching them as a 30-year-old, that they are very moving stories about families. Marty McFly has to get his parents to fall in love, and in E.T., we’re watching a broken family come to terms with caring for - and losing - another member. I wondered where such stories were on the bookshelves.

Turned out they were in the YA section. Since then I’ve been reading a lot of brilliant stuff by people like David Almond, Patrick Ness, Tim Bowler, Alan Garner, Louis Sachar, Siobhan Dowd, B.R Collins. These novelists often confront big, philosophical ideas, and take quite a lot of formal risks.

I also noticed a lot of generic conventions that in some circles might be sniffed at, but I found myself really excited by: big hooks at the starts of chapters, cliff-hangers at the ends, humour. I wondered if I could do that. So I had a go, and we’ll see what happens.

See, I’ve never really got why those things - hooks, cliffhangers and whatnot - have to be something separate to literary fiction. Good writing is good writing isn’t it? (now there’s a question for you)

Uh-oh, are we talking about readability?

I think there’s room on the shelf for everything. Slow, fast, experimental, conventional, intellectual. Let’s not dismiss an entire sub-genre, but let’s not dismiss formal ambition, either.

When I’m writing, I find that the idea, the material, the mood, suggest the form rather than the other way round. The Hunger Trace is about two women dealing with the loss of an important man in their lives. In the beginning, Maggie and Louisa are sort of frozen by loss, and the writing reflects that. The pacy narrative devices aren’t appropriate until they thaw out.

In terms of literary vs genre, I find all that fascinating. I just read an interesting essay about the borderland between the two, by Michael Chabon after which I happened to re-read a very smart thriller by Susanna Moore called In the Cut. It’s about language as a weapon, and it’s absorbing and complex and political and stylistically interesting.

I haven’t resolved any of these issues, writing-wise, but in terms of reading, why limit yourself? There’s nothing that says you have to choose between Dubravka Ugresic and Nick Hornby. You can read both!

I wasn’t talking about the dreaded readability specifically, but as everyone else is…

Anyway, let’s take a final diversion. How do you write? I mean literally. What’s your process? Paper and pen? Some fancy app on your telly-phone? Gosh, the options, the options.

Again, I haven’t quite settled on one approach. I find that the process tends to change with the project, and also with my living/work situation.

These things, however, usually play a part:

A notebook (I always buy coats with big pockets, and it ain’t because I’ve got loads of money). I find, when I’m working the day job, that the walk to and from the station can be fruitful for ideas.

Index cards. In the early stages of a novel, I write ideas for scenes and events on these, and keep them in a little box.

Pen and paper. I have a nice fountain pen with thick black ink.

Computer. I’m not eccentric. They’re good.

I find there are usually bits of paper on my desk with complex systems of numbers and letters on them, and the events of novels (sometimes mine, sometimes those of others) boiled down to short sentences. At the moment, the 30-odd scenes between the two central characters in the brilliant film Fishtank, are scrawled in note form. I like trying to work out how good things are done.

Speaking of good things, let’s finish on what you’re reading right now. Or have been reading recently. Any recommendations?

Yes, I’ve had a good run of reading, recently.

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, is a funny and beautiful and strange book. I reckon it’s her best yet, and she’s always brilliant. I laughed and cried within the first 7 pages.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is, as most people already seem to know, ace.

Breath by Tim Winton really shook me up. So disturbing and frightening.

And After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, by Evie Wyld, is an immense book. A shocking and careful study of what war does to people.

Huge thanks to Ed for giving up his time for such a smashing interview. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter and buy his marvellous novels from your local bookshop.