Interview with Claire Patel-Campbell
Those of you who read my review of Abernathy last week will be excited to know that I caught up with author Claire Patel-Campbell for an interview. Welcome, Claire! 1) To start with, could you introduce yourself and tell us about your current project?
My name is Claire Patel-Campbell, I’m a writer, blogger and journalist based in the north of England, and I’m currently working towards the publication of my debut novel, Abernathy. In a nutshell, I’d describe it as Scandinavian noir meets Fargo. It’s a murder mystery at its heart, but it’s also an examination of complacency and human fragility. It’s about how nothing ever really lasts forever, and how a single act of violence can have devastating repercussions for all those connected to it, directly and indirectly.
2) Would you mind sharing an excerpt with us, or a favourite quote?
This is from the prologue, which is a sort of prose-poem:
“You remember these winters, these bitter, dark months, when spring seemed years away. Christmas would come and go in the blink of an eye, but the freezing weather stayed. Daylight was a fleeting thing. Some days, just for a little while, the sky would be clear and blue, as if it, too, were made of ice. You’d imagine it to be a vast, frozen sea, on which you could skate if you could only get there. But then the clouds would roll in. They’d fill that crystal expanse, quicker than you could ever believe. The sun would disappear and the snow would come again. You remember it coming down in thick, blind blankets. You remember the streets, shining and treacherous with ice before they put salt down. You remember the bravery, the invincibility of youth. You remember trekking through the snow, when it was well below freezing, to get to the river. Someone would bring beer and you’d light a fire, when it got too cold to ignore it anymore. You remember daring your friends to step out onto the river’s frozen surface, secretly wondering what you’d do if the ice really did crack underneath your feet. The king would come, you’d tell yourself, and you’d be saved. But he can’t save you now. Not from this. He can’t even save himself. He can’t save anybody.”
3) What inspired you to write this story?
At the root of the story is my connection to rural Wisconsin (more on that here: http://womenwritersschool.com/wisconson-winter-and-writing-what-you-know/) but I’d also had this cast of characters knocking around in my head for quite a while. The novel was a way to give them life.
4) Do you have any other projects on the sidelines?
I’ve just had a short story published in an anthology put together by a writing group of which I’m a member (available for free download here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/693026) and I’ve started work on a story I’m planning to submit to another anthology, this time on the theme of apocalypse (cheerful stuff). I’ve also started noodling around with a follow-up to Abernathy. It’s not exactly a sequel, although it does feature some of the same characters, and it’s a lot more ambitious in scope. I’m trying to do a bit of an AS Byatt-style novel-within-a-novel, with some elements of magic realism, so we’ll see how that goes!
5) Why did you decide to use such an unusual narrative approach?
I wanted Abernathy to be more than a murder mystery. Yes, that is a major element of the plot, but there are a lot of other things going on, too. I wanted it to be quite clearly a literary novel, and I think the non-linear narrative helps to mark it out as such. Effectively, the sections are set up as standalone short stories, all of which are connected to one another. Although they aren’t in chronological order, they have to be read in the order they’re presented, as one leads to the next. I also think it keeps the reader guessing, casting light on certain plot points, while throwing others into the shadows.
6) Who/what is your writing inspiration?
Other writers. If I read a great article or a blog post or a novel, it gets me motivated to try to be that good. I mean, if I’d just come away from a Salman Rushdie novel, I obviously wouldn’t expect to reach such lofty heights, but it’s something to aim for, and it means I always set the bar high. I don’t like to let myself get away with sloppiness or laziness in my writing. If I had to mention someone specific, right now, it would probably be John Darnielle. Although he’s primarily known as a singer-songwriter, he’s also an amazing prose writer. His style is very distinctive and he has a wonderful way with imagery. Everyone should read Wolf in White Van as soon as they can.
7) What do you do if inspiration just won't come?
Wait. Sometimes, it’s the only thing you can do. That being said, I admit I do sometimes try to force myself to write something – anything – just to start the flow again, and that can work. Even if it’s crap, it’s something to work with, and it can be helpful to find out what you don’t want from a narrative as well. It can also be useful to look for flash fiction or short story prompts, set by other writers on Twitter, as you never know what spark a single word or phrase could set off in your head.
8) Which part of the writing process is your favourite, and which part do you dread?
I love writing that great first line, when you have all those possibilities for the story stretching out in front of you. At the other end of the spectrum, I hate rereading. Obviously, it has to be done for the purposes of editing, but it is possible to read the same line so many times you start to hate it, or to find a line you’d thought was amazing when you wrote it that suddenly looks schlocky and awful.
9) What is your number one distraction?
The internet. All too often, I’ll look something up on Google that will lead me to look something else up, and that will lead to something else, and before I know it, I’m reading the entire Wikipedia entry on HH Holmes (don’t. It’s grim.)
10) Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I had to look up what this meant! I’d say I’m somewhere between the two. I’ll have a pretty strong idea of what I want from the narrative and where I want it to go, but I don’t believe in sitting down and writing out a long, detailed plan. I tend to get spurts of inspiration and I’ll quite often change my mind about plot elements, so I find there isn’t much point. Instead, I’ll write as much as I can in one go, and then go back over it to add to it and fine-tune it as I go along. That being said, I do like a good family tree, and have been known to plot out characters’ genealogy going back at least a hundred years.
11) Tea or coffee?
Both. I’ll have a coffee first thing in the morning to get me going, and then tea throughout the day. I find it’s a nice way to force myself to look away from the screen every now and again, and much less likely to cause insomnia than multiple cups of coffee!
12) What are the most important three things you've learned about writing, editing or publishing (or all of the above!) since you started your journey?
First, just fucking do it. If you’ve got a novel rattling around in your head, start writing it. You don’t know until you try. As for editing, as I mentioned above, it can be all too easy to get stuck on a single line or paragraph. Sometimes, the best thing is just to leave it and move on to the next thing, or chop it altogether if it really can’t be fixed. Chopping is ok! Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings! As for publishing, it’s all about perseverance, especially with something like Unbound. It can seem impossible at times, but if you give up, you’ll always wonder, “what if…”
13) What's your favourite quote on writing?
I like this one, by Henry James:
“The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.”
14) What is the best piece of advice you've received?
That’s a tough one. I quite liked my A Level English teacher’s advice about not trying to stay with your university boyfriend after you graduate, but I suspect you mean advice specific to writing! I suppose my journalism tutors’ advice was probably pretty good: don’t waffle and don’t use too many adverbs!
15) Where else can we connect with you?
All over the place! You’re most likely to get a response on Twitter (http://twitter.com/seenitheardit1) or on Facebook (http://facebook.com/clairepatelcampbell), but I’m also on Medium (https://medium.com/@clairepatelcampbell), and Scriggler (https://scriggler.com/Profile/claire_patelcampbell). You can also email me at abernathynovel at gmail dot com.