I recently wrote a post about creativity in non-fiction writing and then had the idea of inviting some of my writing friends and acquaintances to take part in an interview series on the subject. I’m going to be publishing these interviews over the next few months (yes, I’ve had a great response, yes, you can still take part, just pop and have a look at the original post for instructions).
Today I’m delighted to kick the series off with a chat with author Paul Magrs. I originally got in touch with Paul when I found a mention of my hobby of BookCrossing in his lovely novel, “Exchange”. We’ve become friends, I’ve enjoyed reading all of his books apart from the one that was a bit too scary for me (it’s actually fine, I’m just easily scared) and, as he’s recently published a work of non-fiction, his part-memoir, part-cat biography, “The Story of Fester Cat“, I was interested to find out how the creative process for that book differed from his fiction writing. Let’s meet Paul and find out more …
Hello Paul! First of all please tell us a bit about yourself and your books.
I’m a literature PhD who taught the Creative Writing MA at UEA during my twenties and thirties, and next year sees the twentieth anniversary of the publication of my first novel. I’ve written magical realism, queer fantasy, science fiction, domestic thrillers, camp screwball comedies and Gothic mysteries. My newest release is ‘The Story of Fester Cat’ published by Penguin US and my next book is a YA science fiction novel, ‘Lost on Mars’, coming out with Firefly in the spring.
So, how did you start writing, and which came first, fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction came first of all, from a very young age. It was all endless practice till I was at university and found out you could do courses and workshops in this stuff.
You’ve recently published your memoir / cat biography: did you always want to write what we’re loosely going to call non-fiction (see below) or was this a relatively late development?
I’ve always been a devoted keeper of journals and diaries. All my writing practice involves warm-up sessions and these most often involve memoir-work. Well before I published any, I’d written a great deal of non-fiction, or hybridized fiction / non-fiction. When I was at UEA, Julia Bell and I set up the journal ‘Pretext’ in 1999, and that was all about writers and academics exploring forms of writing that blended genres and forms. I wrote a few pieces at that time, including a piece called ‘What Now, My Love’ for Pretext and ‘Here Comes Glad’ for the TLS, and they were my first forays into memoir.
Now, I recently blogged about finding that writing non-fiction was still “creative”. Do you agree, or is only fiction writing truly creative?
They are both creative in different ways. Both are linked to the world outside the book and both have to be summoned up and imagined fully on the page. Some of my favourite non-fictions I read greedily, like I do novels – and some of my favourites teeter between genres. A really good biography will make the person materialize in front of you. It’s not just creative – it’s alchemical.
I’ve heard it said that memoir should be considered as “creative non-fiction” – do you agree with that description? How does writing memoir differ from writing fiction on the one hand and non-fiction on the other?
I see it all as much more fluid than that. Some of those hair-splitting terms can sound so clunky and dry. They’re simply books, aren’t they? And how do you classify books such as some of my favourites – Wayne Koestenbaum’s ‘Jackie Under My Skin’ or ‘Agatha Christie’ by Laura Thompson or Susan Sontag’s ‘Volcano Lover’? They blend biography with fiction and theory.
If you use your own life in your fiction, was writing a memoir different from doing that? And in what ways do you think writing a memoir narrated by a cat was different to writing it in your own voice?
It’s good to come at any material – whether semi-fictional or mostly-‘real’ – from a slantwise direction. An unusual point of view is the classic way of giving yourself a fresh pair of eyes – but also licence to reshape and adapt the raw material. However close to the ostensible ‘truth’, it’s all about taking stuff that’s life-shaped and making it book-shaped.
Have you got anything else you want to add about creativity and writing (with particular regard to non-fiction)?
It was interesting that some editors [the ones at publishers who ended up not taking on the book – interestingly, in the UK] worried about Fester’s book being both fiction and non-fiction at the same time. They wanted strict lines drawing between the two. I think it’s a shame when things have to be so clearly demarcated. It’s a hopeless distinction anyway, I think. When we enter the world of a book it’s all made up, anyway. When I reread Fester’s book at the proof-reading stage I was seeing in my head a version of his story that wasn’t us. It was very weird – I could see a public version of our story, still familiar, but rearranged and reinvented at the same time. Writing is a parallel universe.
That’s very interesting, thank you! Now, tell us where we can find your books!
Many are available online, or in bookshops. The Brenda and Effie Mysteries should be available everywhere. ‘The Story of Fester Cat’ has just been published by Berkley / Penguin in the US and you can find it on Amazon.com, but not in the UK as yet, but it is available as a Kindle book in the UK. You can read more about the book and its reviews on my blog.
I love Paul’s take on this – that genres should blur and it doesn’t matter whether something’s fiction or non-fiction as long as it’s readable. It’s interesting that his editors were concerned about this – I don’t think I’ve worked on anything particularly genre-crossing in my work as an editor myself, but I’ll watch out for making a fuss about things that do so if I don’t need to! I love the quote “It’s all about taking stuff that’s life-shaped and making it book-shaped” – I certainly did that with my first two books, and it makes me think about how I shape my experiences to help other people build theirs.
What a lovely start to the series. Watch out for more interviews, either by subscribing to this blog (see the links in the top right if you’re viewing on a PC or on the drop-down menu if you’re reading on a phone or tablet) or clicking on the “non-fiction creativity” tag at the top of this post.