[Interview] Maureen Myant

Educational psychologist and novelist, Maureen Myant was born in Glasgow where she currently lives and works.

Her first novel, The Search (Alma Books, 2009) has been translated into Spanish and Dutch.

In this interview, she talks about the challenges posed by juggling writing, studying and work:

When did you start writing?

My first attempt at writing a book was when I was about seven. I was in the garden and had just finished reading an Enid Blyton book (I think it was about fairies) and I thought 'I could do that.' So I ran inside, got some paper and a pencil and wrote about three pages. Then I was called inside for my dinner and when I went out again I found that the pages had disappeared - a wind had sprung up. I thought all I had to do was search my memory and what I'd written would come out again fully formed but of course it didn't.

After that early start, I didn't do much writing for years apart from some very bad poetry during my teens and some terrible attempts at short stories during my twenties and thirties.

I was 42 when I decided I really wanted to write. I also wanted to be published. I had spent much of my adult life studying and was about to embark on a professional doctorate when I had a 'lightbulb' moment and realised that if I was ever going to finish the book I'd started at seven I'd better get on with it. So I ditched the doctorate and started an evening class in creative writing. A writer called Janet Paisley was the tutor (Penguin have just published her novel, Warrior Daughter set in the bronze age and it's a terrific read) and she was inspirational.

A few more evening classes and I was confident enough to apply for the MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University. I did this at the time when Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Tom Leonard were the professors. It was a very exciting course. I have a strong belief that you can be taught creative writing. I think there has to be some sort of spark there to begin with but you can definitely improve what you have with good teaching. I can't remember who it was that said that writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but that is something I do agree with.

It's been a long road to publication though. I have a drawer full of rejections from magazines and agents but I kept on trying and eventually my lovely agent, Diane Banks, signed me up. I think it's essential to have an agent who believes in you and your work and I would recommend this to any writer. Agents have so many contacts and can cut out so much of the waiting for publishers to get back to you.

How would you describe your writing?

I'd love to say that it's literary but I'm afraid it's not. Strong narratives which are well written and are psychologically true... that's what I aim for.

I think my target audience is me. By that I mean people who like reading, who want to be drawn into a story and live with and believe in the characters.

Which authors influenced you most?

That's a really difficult question. I have very eclectic tastes and sometimes I feel I'm very easily influenced by whatever I read.

I do like writing which is full of psychological suspense though and with this in mind I'd say that I've found certain novels of Ian McEwan's very influential, specifically Black Dogs and Enduring Love. In particular the opening chapter of Enduring Love was something I had in mind when I wrote the first chapter of The Search. The way it draws you in to the story, I loved that and I would hope that my first chapter also draws in the reader although the subject matter is of course very different.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I'm not sure that I use specific personal experiences much in my writing. The Search is not at all autobiographical and I think that's perhaps because I started writing properly when I was much older.

I think if I'd persevered with my early writing it would have been much more autobiographical. Having said that though, I do think that as someone brought up in the west, in the shadow of WW2 and the cold war, that this has influenced my writing in general ways.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I want to write as well as I can. I worry that I write too quickly sometimes and that I'll let something sloppy slip past my internal editor. I tend to rewrite a lot, going over passages again and again until I'm happy with them. And even then...

My biggest challenge is finding time to write. I have to be very disciplined. When I'm working on a big piece such as a novel, I tend to write in the evening from 7 til 9 and one day at the weekend.

Do you write everyday?

I think I write pretty much every day, whether it's to continue with a story or write a brief review of what I've been reading or (very recently) to add to my blog.

The best piece of advice I was given was when I was doing the MLitt in Creative Writing was to write something every day and if that meant keeping a journal then do so. I started keeping a journal then and I have to say it's a pretty self pitying piece of work! It catalogues all the rejections and setbacks and it can be rather depressing reading it. Since getting the contracts for The Search however, I haven't written much in my journal I'm pleased to say.

I always write in my living room, with my laptop on my knee. I have a bit of a time wasting habit in that I'll play a couple of games of solitaire before getting started. I kid myself on that it's helping to clear my mind. As I said earlier, I work from 7 til 9 in the evening (sometimes 10 if I have a deadline) so the clock stops me. It's rare that I work beyond that time -- I have to speak to my family sometime!

How many books have you written so far?

The Search is my first novel. It was published by Alma Books in September 2009.

The Search is based on what happened to the village of Lidice during WW2. Following the assassination of Heydrich, the Nazis destroyed the village after having executed all the males above the age of 15. The women were sent to Ravensbruck and some of the children who looked Aryan enough were sent to Germany mainly for adoption. It's unclear what happened to the majority of the children but it's thought that they were gassed at Chelmno. The Search follows two of the children, Jan and Lena, who were sent to Germany to an orphanage. Lena disappears and Jan finds out she's been sent to a farm in Germany. There's a subplot which concerns the ordinary German family Lena has been sent to and how the war affects them.

I started the novel when I was in the middle of a PhD in creative writing and wrote about 30,000 words before putting it aside to finish the thesis. When I got an agent on the strength of another novel, I showed her what I'd written of The Search and she encouraged me to finish it. I think in total, it took about nine months but spaced out over about two years because of the interruptions.

It was first published in Spain as La Cancion de Jan (Jan's song) in September 2008 by Grijalbo Press (Random House Mondadori), then in the Netherlands by Arena Press as Zoeken Naar Lena (Searching for Lena) in February 2009. It's now been published in the UK by Alma Books.

My experience hasn't been that I choose a publisher -- more that they chose me! Seriously, the choice of who to send the novel to was up to my agent. I did a lot of googling though and I did like the look of Alma. I thought their list looked really interesting and now that I've read some of the books they publish I'm really chuffed to be published by them. Having said that, I'm very happy will all three of my publishers. Big publishers like the Spanish one have the advantage of a large organisation behind them but I do like the personal touch of small publishers like Alma Books.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into The Search?

I wanted to ensure that I was as accurate as possible in writing about a time and place foreign to me. I had to read many factual books about WW2 and the Holocaust. That part was emotionally demanding. I'm not sure how I dealt with it -- I suppose I just saw it as something I had to do.

Another thing I found very upsetting was that sometimes when I googled something, a Holocaust denial site would come up. This happened again very recently when I was trying to find the name of a film I'd seen as a teenager about Lidice. Up popped this ghastly link to a site which claimed the whole story of Lidice had been made up. I was livid. I've been to the memorial site, I've seen the photographs, listened to the testimony of those affected, watched the film that the Nazis made at the time. And yet here were these idiots claiming it didn't happen.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I love writing. I love finding out what's going to happen to the characters. But I also really enjoy rewriting. It's great going back over stuff you've written and tweaking it until you're happy with it.

In what way is The Search similar to other things you've written?

The novel I wrote for my PhD is also set partly during WW2 and the Holocaust. In addition, there are common themes of separation and loss in most of my work.

The novel I'm working on at the moment is about a British tour group visiting the USSR in the late 1970s and the cultural differences they encounter there. There's much more of me in this novel as some of it is based on my own experience of visiting the USSR in 1979. At the time, I knew I should be writing down my experiences because it was so different to anything I'd ever experienced before (though I was only 24 at the time and quite naive) but I didn't and I really regretted it when it came to writing this novel. However it's been good in one way because I have to rely much more on my imagination.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I started writing The Search while I was doing a PhD in Creative Writing. I look back on that time and can't quite believe how much I juggled: the critical aspect of the PhD (which was extremely demanding as my first degree is in psychology), a novel for the PhD, starting The Search and working full time as an educational psychologist.

I want to sleep for a week when I think about it!

Possibly related books:


Related article:

[Interview] C. Y. Gopinath, author of 'Travels with the Fish', Conversations with Writers, September 18, 2008


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