Jake Arnott exclusive interview
Is writing about the 18th century quite a change for you?
The Fatal Tree is the furthest back in history I’ve gone, though for The House of Rumours I jumped around in history and wrote a bit set in the Renaissance. Chance leads you, and I have to follow where I’m inspired. Read the fiction of that period, not just the fact – that’s my advice to any one wanting to write a historical novel.
Were there any parallels between 18th century celebrity culture and today’s?
Now everything is predictable and put on TV very quickly and reality stars seem to have taken over – but the Sheppard narrative has this very poignant bit on his escape where he describes busking ballad singers , and the subject of their ballad was Sheppard. He heard himself referred to in third person – being a reality star. Sheppard was destroyed by fame. He became obsessed with his own fame, he’d walk the streets to show himself off.
What was the process of writing an 18th-century-set novel for you?
What was deceptive about writing The Fatal Tree was that I wrote the first draft very quickly, and then I had to really work. I really had been taken over by the 18th century and I had to bring it back. The nature of the style of that time is the picaresque, one thing after another, and what I’d written needed shaping.
What’s interesting about this period is that it’s the beginning of the novel, as well. There’s a sense of reportage. The other really big influence is Hogarth – his prints were of great practical help, they’re like graphic novels. I had to do a lot of rewriting. Reading is the really, really crucial part.
How did you become a writer?
I spent a lot of time working on becoming a writer. From age 7 up to age 13 I wrote stories – I thought that’s what we went to school to do. I didn’t have any trouble at school until they wanted me to do something else. I didn’t do college, I didn’t do education – writing was something I had to learn myself, in my 20s. It took me a long time to get round to it. Becoming a writing is something I’m still on my way to. I’m still working on it.
You’re a big believer in cutting stuff out, aren’t you?
Most of what we write doesn’t get published. I get rid of a lot of stuff from books. People will show you stuff and you say, ‘that’s great but it’s got to go’. You think, when’s it going to start? Almost always, with a first draft, the first chapter is something you don’t need. Throat-clearing. Getting the momentum up. Maybe you do have to write: ‘Then the earth cooled and the dinosaurs became extinct’ – but that’s the tough thing about being a writer. You might be that genius who gets it right first time, but most of us are not that lucky.
What importance does reading your own work have?
Sometimes people will write something, and don’t read it in the way they write it. Creative reading is where the creative process happens. The writing is often a process of elimination so that the reader can read it.
What’s your writing process?
Work depends on the book. With this one I wrote a draft very quickly. With The House of Rumour I was all over the place, as you can imagine. I make lots of notes. I do write on the computer but I make lots of notes – sketches – in longhand. I often do start with what people are saying. I talk as I’m writing. I didn’t realise how much until someone came to fix my boiler and I couldn’t work because I needed to talk! Walking is important as well – I’ll walk round the area I’m writing about. If I’m working there will be a walk involved. Often I need to go and walk an idea through. The very act of walking stimulates my mind – I can’t sit down too long. It gets stagnant.
Aleister Crowley has been in two of your books now – The Devil’s Paintbrush and The House of Rumours. How did he get it?
Aleister Crowley turned up by accident, lurking in the shadows. I’m interested in characters who lurk in the shadows, and you don’t know if you can trust them.
Read more from Jake Arnott in the March issue of Writing Magazine