Today I’m happy to have yet another fellow North-East writer chatting on the blog. The very clever and multi-talented Valerie Laws is here to tell us about her writing life.
What do you like most about writing?
There’s the feeling when something goes right, a piece of work seems to be getting close to the idea in my head. Then there’s learning new stuff. I have many Writer in Residence posts which are so interesting, I’ve learned so much and met so many cool people who are generous with their time and expertise. I feel very lucky that I’ve managed to work as a full-time professional writer for a decade or so, with 11 books to my name. Then there’s reaching an audience, making people laugh and cry. Hearing and seeing them do it when performing my poetry or reading from my novels or when watching one of my plays. My AV poetry installation ‘Slicing the Brain’ had a very powerful effect on exhibition visitors in London and Newcastle, reading their comments in the visitors’ book was amazing. Positive reactions to my novels online or at events, good reviews on Amazon. A total stranger was tweeting about how much she loved my crime novel ‘The Rotting Spot‘ the other day, which was fab.
What do you dislike (if anything)?
Sometimes it’s frustrating but that’s part of the challenge. Pressure of time; marketing my books and poetry, I enjoy that but it takes up a lot of writing time – I would like to slow down the planet to get longer days. Rejections, or projects which crash and burn, part of any writer’s life, they never get any nicer!
What inspires you to write?
Most of my plays, even my BBC radio play ‘Nowt to Look At’ and many of my poems are about the lives of real working class people from the North East, especially from the past, people like my own family background. I am passionate about the life stories of people who were ignored by historians and academics, and whose endurance, courage, and spirit, to say nothing of their humour, deserve to be celebrated. Even Lydia Bennet – I wanted her to speak up for herself instead of being scorned by all the ‘good’ characters in Austen’s novel! Hence my comedy ebook ‘Lydia Bennet’s Blog‘, her saucy teen version of ‘Pride and Prejudice‘. Another major inspiration is the sea, I’ve always lived by the sea and am obsessed with water and swimming. Again, many poems and most of my plays are sea-related (e.g. ‘Collingwood’, ‘The Selkie’, ‘Hadaway’), and I love the sea’s power, beauty and ever-changing colours. My crime novel ‘The Rotting Spot‘ is set in Seaton Sluice on a tiny headland in the North Sea, which is really like a main character. The follow-up novel ‘The Operator’ is also set on the north east coast. Ideas also come to me from personal experience, listening to people’s stories in queues, headlines, and they keep hanging about annoying me until I write them. They come as poems, plays, novels, sci-art installations… I write when I feel I’ve got something that needs saying. I am often commissioned to write or create something and I find writing to a deadline inspiring!
Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I always find time to read. Apart from being a fanatical and very fast reader, I have a lot of friends who write books, and I like to support them! I read masses of crime fiction. I’m just finishing my friend Ann Cleeves’ new Shetland novel ‘Dead Water‘, she’s always so good – I even buy hers in hardback, and I’m a total Kindle convert! I read a lot of poetry, just been re-reading Ann Alexander’s ‘Too Close‘ in e-book form.
Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I love the novels of Barbara Pym, and Jane Austen (though I’m having fun with her heroes and heroines in ‘Lydia Bennet’s Blog‘!) I love a lot of poets’ work and I know many of them so have to be careful here but Sharon Olds, an American poet, is breathtakingly honest and intimate. Shakespeare, he’s funny, lively, sexy, sad and his language is so powerful and entrancing to hear. William Blake’s poetry, he’s a true prophet, he foresaw some modern scientific and social ideas far ahead of his time. Oh so many… I don’t try to write like anyone in particular, but writers I love have changed me so they must change my writing I suppose.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I would be a forensic pathologist. I have a degree in Maths/Theoretical Physics, but I’ve done years of research recently working closely with neuroscientists and pathologists to learn about the science of dying for ‘All That Lives‘, my latest poetry collection from Red Squirrel Press, and that has been an amazing journey – I’m Writer in Residence at a pathology museum in London, as well as in several other unusual brain institutes, and now at Dilston Physic Garden near Corbridge, growing mind altering plants! The more I learn about death, the more I learn about life. This interest also feeds into my crime fiction. I collect skulls, so I have an interest in anatomy. I was a teacher until I was disabled in a car crash 27 years ago.
What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?
I have ‘multiple publishing disorder’, I write in lots of genres, which makes it perhaps harder to succeed financially, I’m always keeping lots of plates spinning and rushing round like a mad thing and it’s harder to market my work when I’m doing poetry, performances, exhibitions, plays, novels. I also write across genres. But this is just who I am. Strengths, from a writing point of view, I would say lyrical sensuality, witty dialogue, writing about taboo or difficult subjects such as malformed foetuses or dementia or flirting at funerals or phone sex… Weaknesses, well, lyrical sensuality and humour in the eyes of those who like spare minimalist writing and disapprove of humour in crime fiction (yes, some do)! I also work hard but I always put off starting something new as I’m scared it won’t work – though sometimes it is forming in my head during that time.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just relaunched my ‘‘Clueless in corsets” comedy ‘Lydia Bennet’s Blog – The Real Story of Pride & Prejudice‘ on Kindle which has some great 5* reviews from respected authors. I’ve had a splendid new cover designed by Alison Richards, with a steampunky feel, to get across the timeslip element of the book. Lydia Bennet’s shameless story is told in modern teen language though it’s set in the 19th century. So I’m busy spreading the word about that.
My newest Writer in Residence post at Dilston Physic Garden includes a commission for one of my signature inventions, the quantum haiku, first seen in my world-infamous ‘Quantum Sheep’ project, where I spray-painted sheep with words of a poem which they rewrote randomly. The second one was on beach balls in a swimming pool, featured in BBC2’s ‘Why Poetry Matters’ with Griff Rhys Jones. This will be my third in the series, and will also be in water, but will be on the theme of plants and their strange evolution of chemicals which mirror the chemicals in our brains – self-defence for the plant, drugs for humans. I’ll be doing some workshops at the garden later on, so do check those out! I’ve just had to fight for my copyright of ‘Quantum Sheep’, first seen in 2002, as someone hustled the idea and sold a simplified version of it to a couple of organisations as their own! My project is still all over the internet and frequently published, referred to and used by many to inspire them to do new things with the idea, which is fine by me as long as they do something different and don’t claim credit for the original idea.
I’m busy touring all over performing my ‘CSI: Poetry’ from ‘All That Lives‘, which is being well received, and a lot of my new poems are being published in various anthologies. I’m busy formatting the book for Kindle which is quite a challenge – much harder than novels due to the layout of the poems and the differing sizes of e-reader screens. I have other work to put out on Kindle too, when I get the chance! My next poetry collection is well underway and I hope it will come out next year.
My second crime novel ‘The Operator’ is ready to roll when I’ve sorted out publication. Whether to go indie ebook, or get a publisher, or both, or…? Things are changing so fast in the book world!
When you’re a famous author and you write your autobiography, what will be the title?
‘Quantum Sheep’ is my most famous work and a great title but I’ve already got a poetry collection named that. ‘Counting Quantum Sheep’? Perhaps ‘In the name of the Laws’? ‘Laws of Physics’?
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The poet/playwright Peter Mortimer once told me that a poem, and I think it’s true of novels and plays too, needs an imperative of some kind: it’s something you feel needs to be said. I’d also say write the kind of books or works you want to write, not just what you think will sell or succeed. Lee Child said when you can see the bandwagon, you’ve already missed it! Keep learning and exploring new ideas, new technology, skills and experiences.
What’s been your proudest moment as a writer?
Difficult to say, each step seems like a pinnacle at the time – first poem published, first competition prize, first full poetry book, first novel… being interviewed live on BBC Radio 4’s iconic ‘Today’ programme by John Humphrys (about Quantum Sheep of course!), performing live at Royal Festival Hall in London, first nights and last nights of each of my stage plays, my radio play: each time I feel, wow, this is as good as it gets, this might be the best it ever is. For a couple of days, then I raise the bar for myself. Anyway those moments make up for the many failures!
What would you say to your sixteen-year-old self if you could offer one word of advice or inspiration?
Literally one word? Too hard even for a poet but ‘Enjoy!’ might do it. More than one? Erm, ‘You will get there, enjoy the journey.’ And that doesn’t just apply to writing!
Where can we find you online?
My website: http://www.valerielaws.co.uk/
You can contact me via Twitter – @ValerieLaws – or Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/valaws – or my website to get copies, or order paperbacks of THE ROTTING SPOT and ALL THAT LIVES from http://www.redsquirrelpress.com
My Residency at Dilston Physic Garden is here: http://www.dilstonphysicgarden.com/writer_residence.htm