Anthony Ferner is the author of three short novels: Winegarden (Holland Park Press 2015), Inside the Bone Box (Fairlight Books 2018), and Life in Translation (Holland Park Press 2019). He is a member of the Birmingham-based Tindal Street Fiction Group. Before becoming a novelist he was a professor of business, conducting comparative international research on the subject of multinational companies.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
To say my first book changed my life is to overstate things. It did have an important effect, but a subtle, interior one. I’d been writing fiction for around twenty years before getting anything published. My debut novel validated my sense of being a ‘writer’.
My new novel, my third, feels different stylistically – notably, it’s written in the first person, rather than the third-person narrative of the previous two.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I spent my working life as a university academic, with a focus on research. So non-fiction was what I did: I wrote a large number of dry academic papers and books, mostly on the behaviour of multinational companies. I started writing fiction as a break from the pressures of work. At first I wrote film scripts with a friend. But when I realised the chances of getting a film made were practically zero, I turned to novels.
As for poetry, I’m rather tin-eared. It’s like a famous musician once said about the British: they don’t so much like the music, it’s more that they like the noise it makes. That’s me with poetry. So I haven’t written any since I was a teenager and didn’t know any better.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
That depends. The thing I’m working on now seems to have been excruciatingly slow. The other books were quicker, once the initial idea had been triggered.
I tend to think about the core premise for a chapter or section for quite a while, making notes as ideas occur to me, and collecting research material. Once I have a clear sense of the central point of the chapter, the drafts come pretty quickly. When I’m writing, I go through umpteen drafts and sometimes there are major changes from one to the next. I have the good fortune of belonging to an excellent writers’ group in Birmingham, with several established writers. The group has a strong ethos of offering constructive, critical support, so I workshop chapters there, and inevitably rewrite afterwards.
4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Before I’d had anything published I wrote several novels for which I planned everything in detail in advance; possibly this reflected my background in academic writing. The novels didn’t really cut it, they were lifeless. My first novel to be published, Winegarden, started out as a short story. The main character seemed ‘alive’ and to demand that more be written about him. So I wrote two or three more stories about episodes in his life, at which point I realised that there was an overall narrative I wanted to tell. It was like an episodic novel or a mosaic, in which all the disparate pieces came together to tell the story. Once I started working in this more ‘organic’ fashion, trying to edge my way into a character and branching out from there, things started to slot into place. I wrote my next two novels in very much the same way, shaping a character and seeing where he took me. So I don’t agonise so much these days about having the story in advance, I’m happy for it to evolve out of the desires and behaviour and interactions of the principal characters.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings don’t go counter to the creative process, but they’re not part of it either. Rather, they’re part of the publishing and promotion process. There’s no point in writing something if it’s not going to find its audience, and public readings are one way of doing that. I can’t say I enjoy them, though. As an academic I routinely had to address audiences of colleagues or students. So I am used to it and can manage it. But I find it demanding and, to a degree, nerve-racking.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
There seem to have been two or three common themes running through my novels. One is the way relationships between people evolve over time, how first impressions get revised or sometimes confirmed, and how the power balance between individuals shifts subtly and surprisingly. Another theme is the link between work and non-work life, how what one does shapes one’s identity and relationships in a host of ways. My protagonists have been, respectively, a Jewish theoretical physicist for whom the uncertainty principle is a way of life; an arrogant brain surgeon humbled by his physical limitations; and a muddled literary translator who constantly misinterprets his world. (Possibly this fascination with what people do for a living reflects the fact that as an academic I did a lot of research on people in employment, and also stems from my awareness that my life as an academic shaped the kind of person I was, and am.)
What’s interesting to me is that I didn’t consciously set out to write about these themes, they were there in retrospect, as it were. The English novelist David Peace said recently that ‘writers don’t choose [our] themes as much as inherit them from the patterns of our lives, and even if we try to expel them from a work in progress, they tend to burrow their way back in.’
For the novel that I’m working on at the moment, I’m concerned to open things up a bit more, to explore personal relationships explicitly against the backdrop of societal dynamics. There are currently some pretty ominous rumblings, not just in Britain – think Brexit – but across Europe and indeed the world. My question is how these developments, some of them toxic, impact on, and are reflected within, relations between individuals.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’ve not really given this much thought, perhaps because I’m something of an impostor as a writer, having spent several decades working in the ‘day job’ and only becoming a writer of novels late on in my career. Writers can take themselves too seriously but, as a whole, they have a role in interpreting their society to itself, distilling things that are hard to put into words other than obliquely and through stories. A literary culture says a great deal about the broader culture in which it’s embedded. More prosaically, writers are also manufacturers of a ‘product’, cogs in a large global industry. I’ve had the pleasure of working with small independent literary publishers. But the big players are major multinational enterprises.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential and welcome. None of my books have been heavily edited by the publishers (or their editor), though they have made very useful and pertinent suggestions. Perhaps this is because my manuscripts were all subjected to thorough pre-submission editing. For example, a colleague of mine from our writing group, with considerable experience himself as a publisher and editor, has done structural edits (and more) on all my books, leading to wide-ranging revisions. As an academic I was used to ‘outputs’ undergoing much scrutiny – first by colleagues, then by anonymous journal referees, with several stages of revision being the norm. The important thing is not to be precious about one’s own writing. At the same time, though, you need to be aware of what the essential core of your work is, and you may want to resist efforts to subvert or dilute that core.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To get good feedback on your drafts, even if it’s painful to hear, and to show generosity to your characters, even the ones you don’t particularly like.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novella to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
As I mentioned, I started out writing novels. They were turgid. I then wrote a short story, but only because two authors in my writers’ group were editing an anthology of stories. That piece became the first chapter of my debut novel. I have written a further handful of short stories, but they don’t come very naturally to me as self-contained works. I see them more as some kind of larval stage that will metamorphose into one of my mosaic or episodic novels.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Before I retired from the day job, I’d snatch an hour some evenings and a couple of hours over the weekend, but since retiring I’ve had more of a routine: of sitting at my computer and working on the current novel for perhaps three hours in the morning, and going back to it later in the day if I’m in the flow. Often I don’t get anything down on paper, because I’m researching or just mulling, and at such times I can get through an awful lot of games of solitaire...
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’ve kept a haphazard but now lengthy diary for nearly twenty years, and also wrote extensive notes about earlier periods in my life when I lived in different countries. Rereading these provided inspiration when I was casting around for a theme for my latest novel, Life in Translation.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
At the moment of writing this, oven-baked potatoes in their jackets.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The forms that influence my work are not so much the arts as the world of work. Science and medicine have also provided me with important metaphorical threads for my novels (I have several medics and scientists in my family). Another major influence has been the time I’ve spent living abroad, thinking and communicating in another language.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In order to keep up my Spanish, which I learned to carry out my doctoral fieldwork back in the 1970s, I still read a lot of Spanish and Latin American writers. Their sensibilities and preoccupations are often very different from those of Anglo-American authors. I’m not sure any particular writer influences me directly, but their work extends the boundaries of what fiction is and can do, in interesting ways. I also keep an eye on Irish fiction.
As for current or recent favourites, I’d mention Mike McCormack and Anna Burns among the excellent current crop of writers from the island of Ireland. And there’s a wealth of interesting new Latin Americans like Pola Oloixarac, Yuri Herrera, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Samanta Schweblin and Cristina Rivera Garza.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Speak other foreign languages with near-native fluency.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, I’ve already had one career, as a research-focused academic, and I found it thoroughly rewarding. I think if I had my time again, I’d possibly like to try my hand at being a literary translator. My new novel is about the world of literary translation, probably a good indication of my longstanding fascination with language and languages.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When I first got a proper job as an academic, I felt the need to do something creative to take my mind off work. For many years I did art – collage and etching. I was OK at it, but I soon reached the limits of my ability and technique and found that frustrating. So I started writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
For books, it’s a toss-up between Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones and Anna Burns’ Milkman. Solar Bones is a brilliant novel that takes seriously the world of work and turns it into a kind of poetry. Anna Burns is from Belfast, and her Milkman is a superb evocation of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ through surely one of the most compelling narrative voices of recent fiction. I love the way Burns depicts the momentous events obliquely, filtered through the self-absorbed, pained, confused gaze of a quirky young woman. (It’s also extremely funny.)
Film: The Act of Killing directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, a film that far transcends its notional status as documentary.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m in the early stages of a new novel about a toxinologist – an expert in plant and animal poisons – who finds that his life is spinning out of control and that murky forces are out to get him. I don’t know yet if it will all come together or not.
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