Tag Archives: Keith Ridgway

One writer’s metaphorical graveyard

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By Lara Áine ni Fhearghail

I’ve been dabbling in this writing lark for a while. And I do mean dabbling: short stories, bits of ideas, notebooks (piles of them) and a Documents folder on my computer that looks like the detritus of a bookshop caught in the London Riots. And honestly? I’ve never actually made it further than a short story.

fabregeI’m probably not that unusual among writers just starting out. A short story is an obvious thing on which to cut your teeth. You get a feel for your own writing, learn about tension and pace, and building characters, shaping plots, and all within a time-frame that seems reasonable. You’re not signing away years of your life in the process. Almost from the very start, you can see the end of the endeavor looming before you. Minimal emotional investment, maximum output. (Just to be clear, I’m talking about learning how to write. Obviously writing a perfect short story is about as easy as fashioning a Fabergé Egg.)

But what happens when your ideas and ambition seem to outgrow the form? Short stories may seem doable but  novels, on the other hand, are like some long, slow slog with the devil. A long, marathon across a huge expanse of wasteland, the end so far away it seems unattainable. It seems like writing with Sisyphus on one shoulder, and Tantalus on the other (or so I imagine at least.) And where, if some sudden madness compelled me, would I start anyway?

It turns out, not really at the beginning.

I was lucky enough to attend a two-day course with Keith Ridgway at the Writers’ Centre on a bleak and sleeting weekend at the end of February. The title of the course was simply, “Starting a Novel”.

There were ten of us on the course, all from different parts of the country, with very different ideas for our prospective novels. Prior to the class Keith had asked us to bring a book with us, a book that had engaged us and that we loved, and the type of book we would wish to write ourselves. The range that appeared was as wide as the possibilities, everything from literary fiction to children’s books and plenty of genres in between.

But back to this thing with beginning…It seems like the most obvious thing in the world (and I am blushing slightly with embarrassment that I had never thought about it before) but books are not written the way they are read. If there was one thing Keith tried to hammer into us over the weekend it was this: very few novels start out life in the same place the readers will eventually encounter them.

We looked at a number of examples. Very different novels, but all with beginnings that seemed almost arbitrary out of context. Starting points that the author had probably chosen long after they had begun writing. If you’re a bit like me and you obsess over the tiniest of details, of getting each sentence right before moving onto the next, this can actually feel quite revelatory to hear.

I don’t have to have every single scene plotted out. I don’t even have to know exactly how it’ll begin. Keith’s advice was simply to figure out the general shape of your novel, you might not even have a specific plot or even characters, but find the shape and let the rest take care of itself as you write.

There were plenty of other things to be gleaned from the course too. We looked at ways of generating ideas, of using other people’s writing to spark ideas of our own and spoke about the importance of feeling emotionally involved in what you’re writing, despite how teeth-chatteringly terrifying it is. We got to hammer Keith with as many questions as we could think of, and he answered them all with thoughtfulness and honesty.

But maybe my favourite piece of advice from the weekend was what Keith called ‘Writing as Performance.’ Never mind “Know Thyself,” try “Fool Thyself.” Do whatever it takes to write, even if it means convincing yourself that you’re not.

If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.

Slavoj Žižek claims to loathe writing so much that he actually pretends to never do it. He writes down ‘ideas’ and then he ‘edits’ them, until eventually it begins to look like a coherent piece of writing. Keith echoed this idea. If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.

I wouldn’t claim that I walked away from the weekend with an idea that writing a novel will be easy. It’s not. It couldn’t be, or else all our inner books would’ve been let out by now. But I still want to do it, even more than before, and at least now I have some practical ideas for how to get through the most trying bits.

Also, I think I’m going to print out the contents of that Documents folder. I’ll scatter the rubble across the floor of my house, my metaphorical graveyard littered with the bodies of false-starts, and tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and look at the size of it and feel like I’ve at least accomplished something. I might even find an idea there, hidden and nearly lost. You have to start somewhere, anywhere.

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That storytelling instinct

We’re chuffed to have Keith Ridgway read at the Centre on Friday 9th November at 1.05pm, as part of the Lunchtime Readings series. His most recent novel, Hawthorn & Child, published by Granta has been met with huge acclaim. His novella, Horses, was published by Faber & Faber in 1997, and was followed in 1998 by the novel The Long Falling (which was awarded both the Prix femina étranger and Prix du premier roman étranger in France). He won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature in 2001 for his short story collection Standard Time. His novel The Parts followed in 2005, and Animals in 2007. His stories have appeared in various anthologies and periodicals in Ireland, Britain and the United States, including The New YorkerDublin ReviewZoetrope, and Granta. Here, IWC intern Ferdia Lennon interviews Keith about storytelling, subversion, and preposterous thrillers.

The protagonists of Hawthorne and Child are detectives, yet it is far from being a traditional crime novel. Was subverting readers’ expectations part of what attracted you to these characters? Well, it was more the other way around. I was attracted to detectives because they are involved in a formal way in what I wanted to write about – our desire and our instinct to shape random events and experiences into narratives that make sense. That’s what policemen do. It’s what we all do, to some extent. I didn’t set out to subvert a traditional crime novel. But you become aware in the writing that having policemen on the page sets the reader up in a certain way. And I played with that, a little.

A chapter from Hawthorne and Child appeared as a stand-alone story entitled ‘Goo Book’ in the New Yorker, and you have described the novel as having a deliberately fragmented structure. Was Hawthorne and Child initially planned as a novel, or did you first envisage it as a short story collection? It was always a novel. But it was always, in my mind, very fragmented. In fact originally it was far more fragmented than it is now. I wanted dozens of tiny bits and pieces. As it is that instinct that I spoke about – that annoying story-telling instinct – came on pretty strong, and there was this tension between coherence and fragmentation in the writing of it. But it’s very much a novel. In the sense that there is no other name for it. It’s certainly not a short story collection.

Previously, you have cited Roberto Bolaño as a major influence. What other writers have been important, both in terms of inspiring you to write, and, then later, in your development? As a reader, I love Bolaño. As a writer, I’m very wary of him. I hope in many ways that he is not an influence, though our thoughts sometimes align. He is of course a sort of inspiration in terms of his ambition for his writing and his fearlessness. There are a lot of writers who I think of in a similar way – from Beckett to Gombrowicz, to Dennis Cooper, Gary Indiana, Flannery O’Connor, Dermot Healy, Cesare Pavese, José Saramago, Muriel Spark. I mean, there are dozens.

You have published novels, short stories and one novella. Do you have a preference for any particular form? No, not really. I just write, and things tend to find their own length. I am increasingly ambivalent about the divisions between these forms. I dislike a short story that is very like a short story, or a novel that it very much a novel. I say dislike, I mean I suppose that it gets boring, now.

You teach Creative Writing, do you find teaching writing has affected the way you approach your own work? I don’t teach creative writing. I don’t know what that is. I teach fiction writing. And no, it hasn’t affected the way I approach my own work.

Your short story The Spectacular looks at the plight of a struggling literary writer who attempts to write a commercial novel about a terrorist attack on the Olympics. Have you ever, in darker moments, been tempted to do the same? For example Sixty Shades of Grey? Well, not the Fifty Shades stuff. But I like preposterous thrillers and well crafted crime-books. It takes a huge amount of skill to do that sort of thing well, and is embarrassing in the extreme when done badly – especially by writers who think they can do it as a sideline. The writer in The Spectacular is one such – he’s lowering himself to writing a thriller. And you see that attitude in quite a few “literary” writers. It’s not one I share. I try to learn what I can from genre writers, and I try to apply it. And in most of my books there have been elements of genre. The Long Falling is a murder story. Horses is a small-town whodunnit. The Parts involves prostitution and kidnap and conspiracy theories. Animals bumps up against terrorism. So I’ve been writing half-genre novels my entire career. It’s just that nobody really noticed until I wrote one involving a couple of detectives.

What are you currently reading? Denis Johnson’s Tree Of Smoke, very slowly; Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony; and some science stuff from Lawrence Krauss and Douglas Hofstadter.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Yes.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers? Read more. Write more. But mostly, live more. Live an interesting life. Never settle. And always be ready to kill, and get out of town.

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