“On Skimmed Milk and the Psychological Thriller,” with Louise Doughty

Louise-Doughty_bio-template[1]“There can’t be a woman alive who hasn’t once realised, in a moment of panic, that she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man.  Louise Doughty, more sure-footed with each novel, leads her unnerved reader into dark territory.  Apple Tree Yard is a compelling and bravely written book.”  – Hilary Mantel

Louise Doughty is the author of seven novels, including the recently published Apple Tree Yard. Her first novel, Crazy Paving (1995), was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and Whatever You Love (2010) was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize. Her criticially acclaimed Fires in the Dark  (2003), is based on the history of the Romany people and her own family ancestry. She also works as a critic and cultural commentator, and broadcasts regularly for the BBC. Born in Rutland, England’s smallest county, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

JG Are there any other writers in your family?

LD No, not at all.  My father left school at 13, my mum at 15.  They were both from solid working-class backgrounds and my siblings and I were the first generation in eitherCrazy Paving family to go to university.  I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was very young though.  I used to make up stories all the time and wrote my ‘first novel’ when I was eleven, in an exercise book, which I covered carefully in plastic.  I started the next one straightaway and decided it should be a hardback, so I made hard covers out of cardboard and glued them on.

JG Your latest novel Apple Tree Yard has been described as a psychological thriller. Where did the inspiration for this novel come from?

LD That one was quite unusual as the idea came from nowhere – one evening, I had a really strong image of a woman on the witness stand at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, in London.  I didn’t know what she had been charged with but I knew it was serious and I knew she was about to be caught out in a very damaging lie.  I had to write the novel to find out what was going on.  It still surprises me when people call it a thriller as I never set out to write anything within a specific genre, but the minute you use the tropes of a courtroom drama, that’s the territory you’re in – but I hope it’s also a thoughtful novel about an intelligent woman who makes one rash decision and ruins her life.  I do want the reader to think, what would I do in Yvonne’s place?

JG Fires in the Dark is based on your Romany ancestry. What research did you undertake for this novel?

LD I got the idea for Fires in the Dark when I was a Writer in Residence at the Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic.  The Romany Holocaust during the Second World War is still a subject that has been written about quite infrequently in comparison with other events of that terrible conflict.  I was interested in following one ordinary Romany family through the twenties, thirties and forties, the Great Depression, the rise of Nazism and the War.  It was a massive undertaking and took me over four years to write.

JG Do you normally undertake extensive research for your novels?

doughtyweb_2586062a[1]LD I love research.  Martha Gellhorn said, ‘Being a writer is a great excuse for going and finding out about stuff’ and I definitely agree.  I love being nosy.  I sat through a three-week murder trial for Apple Tree Yard, every day, disguised as a barrister and sitting on the benches reserved for the Crown Prosecution Service.  People kept calling me ‘counsel’.  The judge knew I was a novelist, though.  I found the detail of the procedures completely fascinating and that kind of primary research is invaluable.  I’ve just come back from a trip to Indonesia, where the new novel is set, and am writing scene after scene I wouldn’t have thought about if I hadn’t been there.

JG What would you say are the familiar themes running throughout your novels?

LD All my main characters face moral dilemmas of one sort or another.  Many of them have to address the issue, to what extent does the harm done to us justify the harm we do others?  Characters in my books who are not necessarily evil sometimes do bad or wrong things because external events have led them there.  Monstrous acts are often committed by people who are not monsters – I think we all have to understand why those acts take place and to try and prevent them.

JG How do you organise your writing schedule?

LD ‘Organise’ is a rather generous word for what I do… For many years now, my writing schedule has revolved around my kids – I start when they leave for school in the morning and stop when they return.  But to be honest, even having that time seems like a huge luxury in comparison with when they were small.  Trying to write a novel with a toddler on your lap while you watch a cartoon on the telly is taking multi-tasking to a somewhat ludicrous extreme.

JG How do you structure your novels?

LD That takes a lot of work and can’t really be done until I have a complete first draft, then there is a huge amount of doing lists of events, charts, swapping bits of paperWhatever You Love around.  I spend as much time structuring as I do actually writing.  It’s an incredibly time-consuming business.

JG Do you use writing software?

LD Only Word.  I’m too dim to use anything else!  When I started out, writers would still debate whether or not it was a good idea to use an electric typewriter…

JG Do you have a favourite writing space?

LD Yes, anywhere but home.  Now I have freedom of movement, I find I just can’t write in the domestic arena.  I take my laptop and go to a café.  I could write a very intimate and detailed guide to the cafes of North London.  I’ve tried almost every one.  It’s quite hard to find ones that don’t have music blasting at disco-levels, though.  And they have to have a loo as I’m often there for hours.  And skimmed milk.  And a belief that hot drinks should be served somewhere above lukewarm.  I’m getting quite picky in my old age.

JG What aspects of Creative Writing do you believe can be taught?

LD You can’t teach talent and you can’t teach inspiration.  Everything else can be taught: the use of language, how to plot, even more nebulous skills like persistence and self-discipline.  But talent and having something to write about are innate.

JG What’s the best piece of advice you would give to our emerging writers here at Listowel Writers’ Week?

LD Keep your nerve.  All writers should have that tattooed on their foreheads.  It’s a very long, very time-consuming and at times disheartening business and you have to want to do it very, very badly.  Apply the seat of your trousers to the seat of your chair (I think that was Kingsley Amis), have a blind faith in what you are doing and, above all, keep your nerve.

Louise Doughty will be interviewed by Listowel Writers’ Week’s Anne O’Neill on Friday 30th May, 1.oopm at the Arms Hotel. For more information and/or to book please click here

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