It’s time to pick up the reins of my series of interviews on this blog on creativity in non-fiction writing , and I’m thrilled to introduce my friend and successful indie publisher, Linda Gillard, as we relaunch the series for 2015. I met Linda through my hobby of BookCrossing, well, let’s say several years ago, when her first books, “A Lifetime Burning” and “Emotional Geology” were published by a small press specialising in fiction about the (slightly older) woman. Linda branched out on her own and has now published seven genre-busting, page-turning books about people in interesting situations (from a woman marooned with an ex-soldier in a crumbling castle to someone looking over her own life as she dies, to Gothic romantic suspense goings-on in the Scottish Highlands). Linda started off writing journalism, however, so she has a great view on both sides of the writing fence, and I’m honoured to have interviewed her on her thoughts about creativity in non-fiction and fiction …
Hello, Linda! We’re old friends, but please humour me for the blog and tell me a bit about yourself and your books
Hello, Liz! I live on the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands and have been an actress, journalist and teacher. I’m the author of seven novels, including STAR GAZING, short-listed in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award (for writing that promotes the Scottish landscape.) My fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE became a Kindle bestseller and was selected by Amazon as one of their Top Ten “Best of 2011” in the Indie Author category. My latest novel, CAULDSTANE, ventures further into the Gothic, and I describe it as a cross between a supernatural thriller and a modern fairy tale.
How did you start writing, and which came first, fiction or non-fiction
I’ve always written something. As a child, I made my own comics and wrote a sci-fi novella when I was a teenager. As an adult I became a writer of long newsy letters. The first time I was paid for producing words was as a freelance journalist. I’d trained and worked as an actress, but I found I had time on my hands, underemployed at the National Theatre and I submitted a few things to magazines which led to a regular column in IDEAL HOME magazine. I also wrote for garden and parenting magazines – mostly lifestyle pieces with a humorous angle. I didn’t start writing fiction until many years later, after I’d given up teaching.
Did you always want to write non-fiction as well as fiction?
I never wanted to do anything other than make up stories. Drifting into lightweight journalism was, I think, an extension of letter-writing and journal-keeping, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I found it very hard writing to a word limit and a deadline. I hated the way sub-editors would trim my copy from the bottom of the paragraph up, cutting my punch lines. (I learned to submit fewer words, so they had no need to cut.)
I thought of it as well-paid literary drudgery. I learned a great deal, but I was heartily relieved when I stopped. It was such a relief when I started writing fiction and realised – oh joy! – a chapter could be as long as I wanted it to be.
It sounds like you found your home with fiction, but I know you’ve got some interesting things to say about non-fiction, too. So, I recently blogged about finding that writing non-fiction was still “creative”. Do you agree, or is only fiction writing truly creative?
Yes, I agree. You have to be very creative to present a complex subject to someone who knows little or nothing about it. It’s a challenging exercise in empathy. If you’re trying to convey how gardening can become a passion, even an obsession, you have to imagine what the reader would find interesting about the subject. You are looking for an entertaining angle, particularly with magazine journalism, and your painstaking research mustn’t show. Your object is to make someone read to the end of the article instead of turning the page in search of something more interesting.
When writing non-fiction, you have to hook the reader and keep their attention. These were skills I developed as a journalist and they came in very useful years later when I started writing novels.
I’ve heard it said that memoir should be considered as “creative non-fiction” – do you agree with that description?
There’s a rather glib saying: “All fiction is biography and all biography is fiction”. I think the boundaries are often blurred. I loved Dirk Bogarde’s volumes of autobiography but they entailed (he admitted later) significant lies of omission because he failed to mention his mother’s alcoholism, which he revealed only after she was dead.
I researched ghost writing for my most recent novel, CAULDSTANE and it appears ghost writers of “autobiographies” are aware that some of the stories their subjects tell aren’t actually true, so I suppose you could argue they’re actually ghosting fiction!
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”. As soon as you begin to write a memoir you are editing memories. (But memory edits memories!) At best you’re telling the truth-as-you-saw-it, which is probably going to be “slant”.
How do you think writing memoir differs from writing fiction on the one hand and non-fiction on the other?
Fiction and non-fiction (i.e. factual books) have to be believable. Memoir doesn’t, because it’s already “true” – a delightful paradox and one that has led me to describe writing good fiction as “telling true lies”.
I think it’s helpful to look at the different audiences one could be writing for … A reader picking up one of Daphne du Maurier’s novels is looking for a good read, with a beginning, middle and an end. The reader of a guide book to Cornwall wants impressions and verified facts about Cornwall. The reader of a biography of du Maurier wants to know all about Daphne and will probably tolerate a little intelligent speculation.
The biography needs to be interesting and well-written, but it doesn’t actually have to be believable (because we all know truth is stranger than fiction). Nor does a biography have to have a climax two-thirds of the way through, followed by a satisfying resolution tying up all the ends. The subject of a memoir can dwindle into unproductive, boring old age and the reader will forgive. They won’t forgive that in a novel.
What about research? Do authors of fiction and authors of memoir/non-fiction differ in the way they research?
I think they differ in the way they use it.
I assume authors of non-fiction and memoir must love doing research, but I don’t. I much prefer making stuff up. And that’s how I work – I make stuff up, then research it later to see what I got wrong. I prefer to do it this way because it avoids the stodgy info-dump, perpetrated by authors who have spent many hours in the British Library and want their readers to know.
I include only the information necessary to tell the story – and that’s the essential difference, I think. The novelist aims to tell a story, but the author of memoir and non-fiction is more likely to be painting a picture, one that’s big and detailed, possibly comprehensive. The detail is the point. In a novel, the detail is never the point. The story is the point and research must always serve that story.
It can be hard when you come across a really juicy fact to leave it out! But interesting is not the same as useful. The author of fiction must ignore the temptation to include it, but the author of non-fiction can succumb because fascinating facts will add to the overall picture.
Pace is an issue for the author of non-fiction, but it’s less of an issue. Readers don’t expect non-fiction to be un-put-downable (though of course the best is! Margaret Forster’s biography of du Maurier is an example. But there you have a marriage made in Heaven: a biography written by a first-rate novelist.)
If you use your own life in your fiction, was writing a memoir different from doing that?
I haven’t used much of my own life in my fiction, apart from my acting career and my experience of mental ill health. I’ve only written “memoir” in the form of many guest blogs about mental illness, cancer, disability and writing.
The main difference I’ve noticed is, when I write about that sort of thing in my fiction, I’m trying hard to generate sympathy for the afflicted character. It’s an exercise in evoking compassion and understanding. But when I write about my own life in blogs, I’m not doing that. On the contrary, I’m trying hard not to be sentimental or self-pitying. I stick to the facts because I want to inform the reader and make them think rather than feel. It’s a more dispassionate, journalistic approach to the material.
What an interesting discussion – thank you so much for taking part in my interview series! Linda’s written such a variety of pieces of work, and still obviously continues to write on writing and her own experiences, as well as working on the fiction side of things.
You can find Linda’s books at …
You can read new interviews in the series, 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, which will give you access to all the interviews published so far, as well. Happy reading!
My own books are all firmly in the non-fiction area, but I do involve aspects of my own life and experience to make them more accessible and welcoming. Take a look by exploring the links on this page, or by visiting the books pages.