Questions From Readers (And My Answers)

How do you think it would change your identity, and your writing, if you could no longer go walking – and what would you do to fill that void? (Betty Lou – Twitter)

I have thought about this a surprisingly large amount. I have not been walking as much over the last few months, but that is because of my addiction to swimming, not because I have lost any love for walking. As meditative and good for my thought processes swimming is, I am already missing the particular kind of thinking time that walking in a remote place gives me. Walking is very much the thread that holds my latest two non-fiction books together. It’s likely that will be less the case with my next few books, but walking is far more than subject matter for me. The moment I started walking a lot was also the moment my writing took a big leap forward and that’s no coincidence. The idea of not doing it terrifies me. If that ever happens, I’d just have to find a positive way to look at it: less walking time would mean more reading and writing time. Maybe I’d also finally learn the flute.

How on earth did you get into that tree in the photo? And more to the point, how long did it take you to get back down again? (Tracey Parker – Facebook)

When I was a kid I’d look at pretty much every tree I encountered and evaluate it for climbability. I’m still the same. I liked the look of this one, above the Dart Valley, not all that far from Poundsgate. The curve of the trunk looked pleasantly mossy and cradlelike: a nice place to rest in and contemplate Dartmoor, Devon, the world. The spot I wanted to get to was only 16 or 17 feet off the ground and I could see a network of strong branches I could use to reach my target, and it was all very easy. So much you think about what you’re going to be when you’re older is so wrong. For example, I probably thought at one point I would be a person who didn’t any longer have an urge to climb trees.

If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life which crisps would they be? (Studio pickles – Instagram)

I’m tempted to say pickled onion Space Raiders because they’re still the crisps that I’m most excited by but I think that would be a mistake: I never feel great after eating them, and never know when to stop. I think the Tesco or Spar versions of salt’n’vinegar twirls would be the safe bet. Classic. Timeless. Solid. Not M&S twirls, though. They’re a mouth-numbing travesty.

Do you ever think of moving countries instead of just houses? Because of brexit and all. (waldmeisterbrunnen – Instagram)

I think, with the mildly itinerant way I spent my childhood, and the interests of my family, me getting so interested in the English landscape was inevitable, but there was an accidental aspect, too, which ushered it on a bit: I was on a plane in 1998 that got struck by lightning and – with one exception, in the summer of 2001 – I have been too frightened to fly again since. Additionally, I worry about my carbon footprint, and I have found no shortage of exciting places in Britain to keep me occupied. But I feel more like I might be able to give flying another go and it occurred to me recently that all the colour that moving around in the UK has added to my writing might be nothing compared to what a few brief spells living in foreign countries might add to it. It’s something I’m keeping in mind, especially as – like a lot of people – I’m feeling less great about the place Britain is right now. At present, though, my cat Ralph is the priority: he’s very old, doesn’t travel well, and I want to enjoy all the time I have left with him. I reckon Roscoe would adjust effortlessly to any place I took her to.

If you could be a musician in any band ever, which band and what instrument? (docjustdoc -Twitter)

Part of me thinks it would have been great to be the young Mick Taylor, joining the Stones in 1969, as they hit their peak, but I don’t think the madness of any of that would have suited me. I’d have ended up running away, just like he did. In truth I’d probably have liked to have been a relatively anonymous session musician who had the good fortune to walk into something very special – Linda Ronstadt’s early 70s touring entourage, ideally. I would love to have played congas as part of this performance. Maybe even put out a low key country funk solo LP at around the same time. It wouldn’t have sold much, of course, and would have been marred by one experimental novelty song, but you’d still find the odd hole-punch import copy of it on Discogs today, going for for fifty or sixty quid.

If your cats and your parents’ cats took control of your keyboard, what would they write about all of you? (Sylvia_Eliz – Instagram)

Ralph would write a misery memoir about my laptop and the books I read, and all the deep upset they have caused him by holding him back from his goal of being able to pad all the softest parts of my body for 21 and a half hours of every day. Roscoe would dish the dirt on how disorganised I am in so many parts of my life, and that one time I wasted a chunk of my life by having a lie-in until 8.15am. I suspect George would write about how lucky my mum and dad are to live with such a pristine and good-looking cat who provides for them in so many ways and lets them live in his house. Clifton Bridget would finally reveal that she is a nomadic 900 year-old witch who has temporarily assumed the form of a cat.

Have you contemplated writing a longer novel set in a century or more ago? Or a contemporary novel set in current time? (Vivian Cafarella – Facebook)

I think about both of these things every day, and have done for twenty years. I probably think more about the former than the latter nowadays. I have no end of respect for the likes of Rose Tremain and Hilary Mantel, who have created huge, amazing, several centuries-old universes on the page. I often think a great historical novel is the ultimate achievement for a writer.

Does your time in the Peaks in the depths of winter still haunt you ? I found the photos you took so eerie! (Em Hardy – Twitter)

It does. I have the choice of looking at it one of two ways: I went straight from a very gentle and lovely living situation (renting a charismatic and welcoming cottage on a country estate in south Devon) to an extremely harsh and difficult one in part of an isolated, eerie farmhouse at one of the highest points in the Peak District, and I could decide that I threw away a very nice way of life. But I am so glad I did it. I would have had to leave anyway, and living in such an unusual, god forsaken spot in such a harsh winter was very inspiring for my writing, got something necessary out of my system, and taught me more about what I want out of a place to live in.

If there was one chunk of land in Britain you could preserve indefinitely from the reach of Tesco and highways and whatnot, and return it to wildness, what would it be? (Julie Dunne – Instagram)

What initially pops into my head here is Dartmoor, because of my deep love for it, and my roots there, and because it would kill me to see it developed and homogenised in even the smallest way, but maybe that’s too obvious, and not making the most of the question – after all, Dartmoor is pretty damn wild already. If we are talking about a return to wildness, I have been thinking a lot recently how I would like to see the edges of Norwich in their 16th Century state, during Kett’s Rebellion. The view from the top of Mousehold Heath, down into the city, in the pre-KFC era. The drunken frolics on the river. The boats coming in from Scandinavia, along the edge of the Broads, and the wool-based excitement.

Why is it important to you not to run with the pack ie not to court popularity, when as an author you need to sell books to live? (CR Stillman-Lowe – Twitter)

There is no brief answer to this question. I think what it mainly comes down to is this: I notice the way I feel a lot more than I once did, and I notice who I am, and I am a lot more honest with myself about it. I have written a book for the wrong reasons in the past – Educating Peter, from 2003, which I discourage anyone from wasting their money on, and which (although it maybe has three or four good sentences) was totally born out of me trying to please people from a very different social background to me who were telling me with great self-assurance what was best for me – and I remember how that felt. I have also written books that are more me – Bring Me The Head Of Sergio Garcia from 2007, Under The Paw from the following year – but not as stubbornly me as they could have been, and are inferior to my later books because of that. You probably need to keep in mind when I say this that I am hyper self-critical (because it’s absolutely necessary to be) but I see a shape to those books that to me now seems, as much as I’m enjoying the writing, like every few pages I’m saying “Is this ok?” to somebody standing on the touchline who I believe has my best interests at heart but who simply and plainly wants to make money out of what I’m doing then move on. My latest three books (and to a lesser extent the two that came before that) are very different to that: they’re all me letting the writing take me where it needs to go. They’re written with a quiet sense of “fuck you”, in a different rhythm, a different zone. I have noticed that the feeling that goes with that, both during and at the end, is a massive contrast to what I used to experience. And I really enjoy it. And, ultimately, the feeling is the reason I’m doing this. Obviously I want to be read, and it’s wonderful when somebody writes to me and tells me about the way a book has connected with them. But the number one reason I’m writing books is the way I feel when I’m immersed in the actual execution. I’m not doing it to be pushed onto one of the big tables in Waterstones, or to be reviewed positively in a newspaper. You realise that a lot of that stuff is much more arbitrary than you once believed, anyway. I’m doing it because I want to get better with each book, learn more as I’m writing each one, and keep challenging myself to do new stuff. I don’t think it’s impossible that at some point that might accidentally intersect with some greater commercial success that gives me a bit more financial security, but I’m not planning on doing anything to try to steer or control that. Also: the fear is kind of important.

My new book is out this week. You can order it here.

My previous book is now out in paperback.

I am also writing another book. You can help to fund it here.

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5 thoughts on “Questions From Readers (And My Answers)

  1. My copy of Ring The Hill has just been dispatched! Just in time for the longer evenings with blanket and cat and open fire.
    Your explanation about the process of writing and how you feel when you are immersed in it was illuminating. It made me think of talented creative people I know who have said something similar about the end product being much less significant than the joyful absorption they experience while engaged in the craft.

  2. The two books where you struggle with yourself and your relationship with golf are very personal and brutally honest so that any golfer can easily identify with every page. Also for those of us lucky enough for cats to allow us to live with them, the fantastic “cat books” are again easy to identify with. I understand you want to go deeper and be less what you see as “commercial”, but don’t diss your earlier books too much. They just reflect what you wanted to share about your life at the time and to be fair, they provided a lot of reading enjoyment for a lot of people who came to feel they knew the boy growing up in Nottinghamshire who played golf then got into music and cats and girls then slowly became more eccentric ( in a nice English way) .

  3. ‘wool-based excitement’ sounds good to me. It would also sound excellent to many of my friends.

    But we’re knitters and spinners and weavers. We get excited about wool-based things…

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