Thursday, 8 December 2011

"What must it be like to be a paedophile who lives near a kid’s playground?" - Interview with Starlings Author Erinna Mettler

Starlings is a daisy-chain novel set in Brighton; I finished reading it about a month ago, but the characters won’t leave me alone. Every time I walk around Brighton someone from the book pops up in my mind, it could be anyone from a paedophile to a mod from the 60s. As I was very curious about the way Starlings was written, the author Erinna Metttler kindly agreed to be interviewed. Enjoy her inspiring answers!

How did you go about writing Starlings? Were they all separate stories to begin with, when did you decide to link them and how did you do it?

I was lucky enough to take a creative writing course at Sussex University. It was a workshop based course which involved writing short pieces and getting feedback on them in class. The first chapter of Starlings was one of the stories I wrote for that. It’s based on an urban myth, I had heard the story about the paedophile living next to a children’s playground many times, but every time it had something different about it, a different playground, a different outcome. I think people can’t help exaggerating stories but they are equally quick to believe something that they’re told is true. I wanted to explore the way myths are created in a city through assumptions and word of mouth. I wrote Roses and Birdsong next and had the idea of linking it somehow to Andy (the paedophile in the first chapter) so I made a minor character in it his father. After that everything in the book seemed to link together. It’s the way people communicate, it’s not even gossip, it’s more like passing around stories. Brighton is a characterful city and you keep seeing those characters around, it’s also small enough to bump into people you know, or know of, just walking around town. We’re all closely connected to each other and that’s what I was trying to show in Starlings.

When it was all finished it was a nightmare to get into order. I had a spread-sheet with who was who, how they linked, their dates of birth and death and when they met each other. There are some very complex connections and some very simple ones. The first and last chapter were always that, but the others moved around in sequence, they still could, you don’t have to read them in a particular order. I don’t think people should stress about making the connections, just read the stories and if they connect then fine. If you like the book it is better to read it twice because then you pick up on a lot more. I must admit, I like books that ask you to work at understanding them. I think the reader should be actively involved and not just treat every book like fast food.

Where did the initial inspiration come from?

I was sitting at the West Pier Playground on a cold sunny day while my kids were playing. I always have a note book and I just wrote what I saw, describing everything as if I was filming it, but didn’t have a camera and had to do it with words. That’s how I always get started, and then I fill in the story, and the senses you can’t film, like touch and smell and taste. With Andy I thought it would be interesting to tell the story from the point of view of the person who never gets to be heard. I mean, what must it be like to be a paedophile who lives near a kid’s playground? Then I wanted to balance that by showing what a mother who loses her children goes through, that was much easier because every mother has lost sight of their child once in a while and imagined the worst.

The other stories came from walking around Brighton with a notepad and picking up ideas from what I saw and overheard. I’m a terrible magpie – don’t sit near me on the bus.

Did you plot each individual story or did you “just write them”?

I always just write. I usually write the beginning first, then the end and then fill in the middle, but sometimes a story will just naturally flow from the first line to the last. More often than not I’ll think I’ve finished something and then go back to it a few days later and write twice as much again. With Starlings I didn’t plot until I’d finished, and then I went back over everything and tightened up both individual and overall plots. I’m not that hung up on plot, I think it can work against natural creative energy, for me it’s much better to just see where the story takes me. Often the stories in Starlings intertwined without me having to think about it too much.

All stories are set in and around Brighton where you live, despite knowing the environment did you have to do any research?

I talked at a book group the other day and one of the members said they would have put money on me being Brighton born and bred, that made me very happy. I’ve lived here for seven years but it was only four when I wrote the book. My knowledge of the city grew as I wrote the book and I think sometimes an outsider’s eye is invaluable in picking up things people take for granted. Apart from just wandering around and writing what I experienced, I had to go deeper into some spaces than others. I got a tour of behind the scenes at the Booth’s Museum – which was utterly fascinating – and of The Old Police Cell’s under the Town Hall. You can go into the cells and see the graffiti on the walls written by the mods and rockers who were arrested in the May Day riots. I watched footage of inside The West Pier just before it burned down, and anything about the incident on Youtube. I did a lot of newspaper research on the city’s history, the war, the 1950s and 60s, what shops and cinemas and cafes there were then. With the stories that explore the nastier elements, drugs, wife beating, child abuse, I was very careful to do as much research as I could, articles, testimony, academic journals, people working in those areas. You need to get it right, otherwise you are doing those involved a disservice.

In one of the stories, The Wife Of Joshua Bones, you have a character writing a fictive story. What was the thought behind that?

I think that might be my favourite story. Originally, it was much longer and alternated between Dia’s fictional imaginings and her real life, which was much more mundane, school runs, washing up etc. But I’d really already gone into that in other stories, so I thought I’d just present her writing, and see if people got it. The chapter is about the creative processes, about imagination and reality and identity, about how as a writer you can’t help but delve into your past, or things that might have been if your life had turned out differently. My favourite author, Paul Auster, once said that his books are often about what his life could have been. Dia’s story is supposed to be inspired by the newspaper article at the beginning, by the death of her lover from twenty years before, and how that fires her creativity. I didn’t go into the rooms at the Pelirocco Hotel (where some of it is set) until after I’d written it, because I wanted it to be in her imagination. I wanted it to be dreamy and fleeting and full of other influences, I read romantic poetry and gothic novels and listened to melancholy love songs. I really enjoyed wallowing and I am immensely proud of what it produced.

How did you find a publisher?

Bizarrely, through an ad in Latest Homes! I didn’t try to get an agent first, which is what everyone says you should do (I still don’t have one). I sent the manuscript simultaneously to about 25 agents and publishers who accepted unsolicited manuscripts. I got a lot of positive feedback, even when the answer was no, and that spurred me on. One other publisher wanted it but it didn’t work out, it didn’t feel right, I felt they wanted me to change it too much. Revenge Ink got what I was doing immediately and the changes they suggested weren’t fundamental and only made it better. All in all, it took two years from submitting to them to the book hitting the s, which is incredibly quick. They are a gutsy independent and they go for modern, challenging writing without relying on celebrity or formulas and, in my humble opinion, the publishing industry needs more like them and less people commissioning ‘party books’ (you know who I’m talking about).

Thank you very much, Erinna. I wish you all the best with your next writing project. And I hope everyone will buy a copy of Starlings as a Christmas present!

You can also catch Erinna reading at Grit Lit tomorrow, Friday.

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