Judith Allnatt’s debut A Mile of River (Black Swan) was a Radio 5 Live Book of the Week and was also nominated for the Portico Prize for Literature. It was ‘a novel of rare insight’ and ‘exquisitely written’ – Michael Morpurgo. She has gone on to write 3 more acclaimed novels including The Moon Field, which was described by The Times as ‘genuinely and deeply moving’. Judith will be delivering a practical 1-day course for Writing School East Midlands all about character development this September (29th), so we thought we’d catch up with her about the importance of character, the feeling of getting published and finding and development inspiration.
Can you remember the feeling when you found out your first novel was to be published?
Yes, it was wonderful! In 2007, just before Christmas my agent rang to say that the manuscript of A Mile of River had been considered by Random House and accepted unanimously at an acquisition meeting. I had been writing poetry and short stories up to that point and investing the time and effort required to write a novel had felt like a big adventure but also a big risk. Having the novel accepted was the best present I could ever have imagined.
Do you have a favourite of your books?
My books are all quite different, so it feels impossible to pick a favourite because I’d be comparing ‘apples and pears’. A Mile of River is a rite of passage novel set on a farm threatened by the 100-day drought of 1976. The Poet’s Wife is about John Clare’s delusion that he had two wives and his real wife’s struggle to cure him of his madness. The Moon Field concerns the isolation of a soldier, injured in WW1, returning to civvy street convinced that no woman could love him and The Silk Factory is a ghost story, with the plight of starving weavers forced to Luddite rebellion at its centre. Each book was my favourite at the time of writing, probably because it takes a big enthusiasm, if not obsession, to fuel the writing of a novel in the first place.
You are delivering a course for Writing School East Midlands on character building. Where do you get your characters from? Are they bespoke to fit your idea? Or do stories flow from people you have already got in mind?
A bit of both. I might research and experiment to develop a character from scratch or work from a real person, as in the case of John Clare. Sources have been very varied: people I’ve met, figures from history, ancestors, photographs, documents, even dreams have been the inspiration for characters. Research fuels creativity. When creating the weavers’ characters in The Silk Factory, I drew on names from local history and faces from nineteenth century portraits. My WW1 soldier’s character grew from stories of my great-great grandfather but was influenced by reading hundreds of soldier’s letters and by seeing drawings of men who had been facially disfigured.
In A Mile of River, the main character is a girl who wants to escape the confines of the farm and her authoritarian father. Initially based on a person I’d known, the character soon took on a life of its own. As you put your fledgling characters into different situations you’re often surprised to find out how they behave. Asking ‘What would they do if . . .?’ is one of the best ways to develop them. Writing letters in the character’s voice can also be very useful. There are techniques that can be used to explore and develop one’s characters and these can be learnt and used over and over again.
I think it depends on how peripheral they are. In the most extreme case, say an incidental character met in passing, one might need no more characterisation than a visual detail or a snatch of dialogue to allow the reader to register their presence. But the degree of detail provided will depend on what the writer is aiming to achieve. For instance, a minor character might be examined at some length and with satirical incisiveness for comic effect.
The main protagonist certainly needs to feel fully formed. The reader will want to know what drives them, their needs, dreams and desires and this is often achieved by exploring their inner landscape in depth, perhaps through interior monologue or insightful dialogue.
Where do your ideas come from? How do you know when it is right for a full-length novel?
Ideas are all around us, from conversations, seeing images, reading, observing. But what makes one particular idea resonate? I think that it’s when the idea chimes with an underlying concern of your own, that it really takes hold. For instance, over the writing of four novels I’ve realised that I’m always interested in the theme of threats to identity. Authoritarianism, madness, lost love, dislocated dreams – these are all different subjects but all relate beneath the surface to the same basic interest. If you can see patterns in the themes that interest you, then that can help when you are assessing a new idea and working out whether or not to proceed with it.
When I get an idea I decide quite quickly whether it should be a poem or a short story or something bigger. If it involves just one strong image then usually I’ll think that could be a poem or maybe flash fiction. If there’s one pivotal moment then usually that’ll become a short story and if there’s a range of themes or it’s a big topic then probably I’ll think that it will work best as a novel. I won’t know if it has the legs to be a complete novel until I’ve written four or five chapters. The reason for this is that by this point the ideas are flaring thick and fast, like a bushfire that’s running off in all directions. When that happens it’s very exciting because I know that this is going to interest me enough to go the distance.
If you could only give an aspiring writer one tip, what would it be?
Write from your obsessions. Don’t feel obliged to only ‘write what you know’. Instead, research what interests you and ‘write what you want to find out.’ That drive of curiosity will provide enthusiasm and incentive to help to carry your writing forward and the gems you’ll find along the way when researching will feed your creativity.
You can find out more about Judith’s work, here: www.judithallnatt.com