For Books’ Sake Talks To: Fiona Shaw

23rd Oct 2012


FBS: Can you tell us a bit about The Royal Literary Fund, how you got involved with it, and your role as writing fellow?

FS: The Royal Literary Fund (RLF) is a benevolent fund, set up over 220 years ago, to support writers in financial difficulty. And it still does just that, but it also does far, far more.

Thirteen years ago the RLF launched a Fellowship Scheme which puts professional writers into universities to help students improve their writing – their academic, not their creative, writing. Students come to see us with their essay, or dissertation, or plan, and we work with them one-to-one, and confidentially, on their sentences, or argument, or structure: on whatever they most need help with. It’s a brilliant scheme, very rewarding work, and everyone benefits.

I worked as an RLF Fellow for two years at York University and another two at Sheffield University, and this year I’m an Associate Fellow, mentoring the writers in my region who are new to the scheme. I’ve loved the work. I’ve also really enjoyed meeting all the other writers. And it’s lovely being part of an organization that is there, primarily, to support writers. It really does make you feel valued.

FBS: You’ve said before that some of the characters in A Stone’s Throw are based on people and events from your life. Would you mind telling us what the influences were behind the characters and the choices they make?

FS: The origins of this novel lie in two true stories told me by two people more than twenty years ago. The first story was told to me by a friend, about her brother aged ten or so, who was carrying a dinghy up from a reservoir with a friend on an overcast day. High, high above was a power cable and as they walked beneath it, something very dramatic happened out of the blue and the boys ended up in hospital.

An old lady told me the second story, which was her memory of travelling in a ship across the Atlantic during WW2 to marry her fiancée in Africa. The ship was torpedoed, and she ended up as the only woman in a packed lifeboat. The part of the story that was most shocking came at this point. These two stories came to mind at the same time and I knew they would form the core of my novel.

One of my central characters was also inspired by my uncle. There is a photograph in the family of him as a young man, and he is waist-deep in water and exhilarated. He was a gay man, and also a very loving father, and I wanted to have something of who he was in my novel.

FBS: You write fiction set in the past, but it doesn’t feel like ‘historical fiction’ in the traditional sense of the genre. How do you decide when and where to set your novels and how do you research?

FS: Penelope Fitzgerald once told an audience I was in that what she tried to do, in researching a novel, was to read everything she could about the period she was setting the novel in, do as much research as possible, and then, as it were, put all that research into a suitcase, close the lid, and write the novel. That’s always seemed to me like a good aim, so that the research isn’t smeared too thickly over the page. It’s not always easy to achieve, though.

With my most recent novel, A Stone’s Throw, the period of time covered by the novel was determined quite closely by one of the stories, which happens to my central character during WW2 when she is a young woman, about nineteen years old.

I think mostly, the time my novels are set in is determined by the kind of story I want to write. My next novel, will probably be set, in part, at the end of WW2, because of what happens to the central character.

FBS: Did writing about disasters on land and in the sea make you scared at all? Are you still confident in travelling?

FS: I would love to test out my bravery as a traveler more than I have opportunity to. I think the disasters in my recent novel feel like disasters that happen to those particular characters; they haven’t made me more fearful for myself.

FBS: You wrote a memoir of your life after the birth of your daughter twenty years ago, would you write a follow up? How do your children react to your writing about what could be considered quite personal matters?

FS: I wrote my memoir, Out of Me, in the wake of a severe postnatal breakdown. It was an important book to write, and to publish, and women still contact me about that book, and about their experiences of depression. However, since then, I’ve been more than happy to make up stories, and I don’t have any wish to write a follow-up. In a sense, all the books since writing the memoir have been the follow-up.

When my children were in their early teens, they did, at times, find it hard, that that information about their family was published and available for anyone to read. As they’ve grown into early adulthood (and become very thoughtful, insightful readers, and good writers in their own right) they’ve become very supportive and proud of my work as a writer, including Out of Me.

Publishing a memoir is a complicated thing for your family, because you are making public your memories, and your understanding of events, which may not be their memories, or their understanding. I’m very glad I published the memoir, and very glad that I’m not publishing another one.

FBS: Which writers do you love and look to for inspiration?

FS: There are many writers whose work I love, and the list in my head changes according to who I’ve been reading, and my mood. But the writers I love often include Elizabeth Bowen, Tove Jansson, Colm Toibin, Herman Melville, Raymond Carver, Graham Greene, Sonya Hartnett, Shirely Hazzard, Ford Madox Ford, David Mitchell [and] Penelope Fitzgerald.

I’ve just turned to look at my bookshelves to list these names. There are many, many more I could name. Though actually, sometimes when I’m writing a novel, I have to stop reading other novelists, because their cadences can get in the way of my own too much.

 FBS: You’ve re-released your earlier work on Kindle. Do you like the eBook phenomenon? Would you ever self-publish future works?

FS: My first three books were published before eBooks existed, so I own the rights to them. Two of the books are also out of print, so publishing them as eBooks made them available again, and gave me the chance to earn royalties again (which of course you don’t with used book sales on Amazon, or ABE, or anywhere else). Once I’ve found a suitable cover for my second novel, The Picture She Took, then I will publish that on Kindle too.

As to whether I would ever self-publish books in the future, I don’t know. It’s certainly getting harder and harder to make a living as a novelist, and I hope that I can continue to be published by a publishing house. But publishing does seem like it’s in a state of great flux at the moment, and who knows what things will be like when it all calms down.

I have republished my first novel, The Sweetest Thing in proper book form, and it’s being sold in various places now in my home city of York. It’s a thoroughly York-centred novel, and has a great deal about a fictitious 19th Century Quaker chocolate factory in it.

It had been out of print for a while, so when a number of people in York said they wished it were back in print (including a bookseller and the owner of a wonderful café called The Cocoa House, who is herself an expert in all things chocolate) I decided to republish it myself.

The new cover features one of my daughter’s friends in a Victorian-style dress hired for the day from York Theatre Royal, together with a bird-cage borrowed from my daughter, two silk birds that usually sit above my desk, and a basket of bread rolls baked by me that morning. My partner took the photograph.

So as well as being available for Kindle, the book is now in print again. Very satisfying. At some point, I hope, enough copies will have sold to have covered my costs, and then I will be earning royalties, for the first time ever on that novel.

Fiona Shaw’s latest novel, A Stone’s Throw was published by Serpent’s Tail in April, and is available from Foyles, Amazon, or your local independent book store.

Jess Haigh