Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Ask the Author - Bethan Roberts

Mr B's Marvellous Monday Book Group read Bethan Roberts' "The Pools" in July. Bethan was then kind enough to have an e-chat with Mr B to answer some of the questions/comments that were made by book group members. Heaps of thanks to Bethan for giving us some great answers. You can see what she says below and if you'd like to hear more from her about The Pools and her brand new book "The Good Plain Cook" then click here for information on her reading at Mr B's on 11th September, 2008.

Mr B - We were interested to know whether it was the crux of the plot or the key characters that came first in the writing process. Particularly as The Pools is your first novel, we wondered what drove the writing process for you?

Bethan - I'd like to say it was the characters, as I often bang on to my students about how everything in a story – plot, setting, tone, theme etc – comes from characters. But I have to admit that the plot ― or rather the plot outline ― came first with this book (I don't think the plot has ever come first for anything else I've written, though).

I started with a true story, in fact. When I was nine years old, a boy in a neighbouring village went missing, and about a week later his body was found in one of the flooded gravel pits near his house. According to newspaper reports from the time, he'd been stabbed 20 times in the back by an older boy. It was a horrific incident, one that burned itself onto my memory because it was the first time I became aware that such things happened –children went missing and didn't come back.

I suppose it haunted me for a long time because I found that, when I was studying for an MA in creative writing at Chichester University, I wanted to write about it, to fictionalise it, to imagine the stories around such an event. I suppose it's an attempt to explain something that I find very frightening. I think quite a bit of writing comes from this impulse – the impulse to imagine the worst, and then write about it as a way of kind of 'working out' the fear. As I wrote, I found, though, that the (entirely fictional) characters drove the plot forward, and I got further away from the original true story and deeper into the novel.

Mr B - The character that caused most debate was Howard. I think he was the character that book group members felt they had got to know most closely. Following on from the first question really, was Howard a starting point for you? Did you think your readers would like him or feel sorry for him or do you tend not to guess/concern yourself overly with possible reader reactions?

Bethan - I'm really glad you felt you got to know Howard well. For me, it is Howard's book. Once I had his voice, I had a 'way in' to the novel, so he was a starting point, yes. (I actually tried to write the story from Robert's point of view first, but this didn't work. The story seemed to need to be told from a more oblique angle). The only reader's reaction that I think about when I'm writing is my own (which also includes, of course, the imaginary readers who stand behind me, looking over my shoulder – old teachers, my poet husband, members of my wonderful writing workshop) - I think I'd drive myself a bit mad if I tried to think of anyone else's!

Readers' contrasting reactions to Howard have startled me, though – some seem to find him 'creepy', others feel very sympathetic towards him. I can't really judge him – it's not for me to do that – but I do have a lot of sympathy for Howard, even though his world-view is rather limited, to say the least.

Mr B- Someone in the book group referred to Joanna as a "Tart with a Heart" during the book group discussion, and we then debated whether she really had much of a heart after all. I certainly felt she was borderline amoral in some episodes. How do you feel about her?

Bethan - I'm glad she provoked debate! Again, I don't feel it's the writer's place to judge her. If you judge characters you kill them (it's all right for a reader to do it, but a writer has to cling on to every breath a character takes and nurture them unconditionally…). You just have to try to bring them to life, with all their complexities and contradictions. Joanna is, I would say, very confused. She's at a point in her life where she's got a lot of sexual power and she doesn't really understand the consequences of that power. She doesn't have much self-knowledge yet, I suppose. And neither does Howard, of course.

Mr B - Do you consider the town to be as much a character in the book as the human characters? Many people commented on how well you described the bleak 1980's small-town semi-industrial landscape including the Pools themselves. Did you have to work just as hard in creating the character of the place as of the individuals?

Bethan - Yes. I'm really pleased that people enjoyed the bleak industrial landscape! I enjoyed writing it. Setting is very important for me. Elizabeth Bowen said, "nothing happens nowhere" and I would agree with this. It's impossible to tell a good story without a strong sense of where that story is taking place. Your characters have to act out their story in a particular place, and this place often throws light on who they are and what they are feeling.

Mr B - A word that came up repeatedly when considering the atmosphere of The Pools was "sinister" and "uncomfortable". Would you agree with that and, if so, was it your intention to create that atmosphere?

Bethan - Great! It worked! Yes, absolutely, I was aiming for menace. I was aiming for tension. I was aiming to make the reader uncomfortable enough to want to know what was really going on. I was aiming to write a good tale that would keep them turning the pages, really. I hope it wasn't too relentlessly bleak, though!

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