1. You have been writing fiction and poetry for several years, what made you decide that this was the right time to write your autobiography?
I’m not sure I did. Partly because I don’t quite think of A Lie About My Father as a work of autobiography, and partly because I don’t really decide to do anything, when it comes to writing. I start to think around rather than about something, then I start building a sense, or a sensation, of something else, some vague form that appears to have a mysterious shape and colour of its own and, before I know it, I’ve started working seriously on a project I can name. But it’s not so considered or deliberate as ‘decide’ suggests. I do admire those writers who seem to take the pulse of the moment and come out with something that’s bound to sell and be noticed. But that’s not how I work. For me, it seems, there has to be an element of pathology about it.
2. In writing A Lie About My Father, do you feel that you have come to understand your father better?
Almost the contrary: I think I came to see him as more of a mystery, and that allowed me to respect him more. There’s a certain brand of respect that’s largely based on accepting the mystery of others, by which I mean accepting that there is something about everyone that is beyond understanding, and so beyond admiring, or blaming, or being angry with. Let’s be perverse and call this the soul. For a long time, I dismissed the notion that my father might have soul as entirely unlikely.
I do think I came to understand myself a little better, though. And I think I forgave us both a little, which is good.
3. How have your family reacted to the book? What do you think your father would have said if he’d had the chance to read your work?
I haven’t talked to my family about the book. I don’t like to go back over a book once it’s written. By the time I finish with one thing, I’m already starting to think around or about the next one. I’m sadly obsessive in this respect.
I don’t think my father would have read the book, had he been alive. He’d probably have planned to, but he wouldn’t have got round to it.
4. In the preface to A Lie About My Father, you say that it should be treated as a work of fiction. Why do you think so?
Well, the most obvious thing to say here is that my story was bound to be partial, in both senses of the word. I didn’t have all, or most, of the facts about my father, and I could barely remember some of the things that happened to me during my worst period, the period when, as the book says, I was ‘falling’. Meanwhile, I was conscious of making a story, of telling a story that was uniquely my own, and while I didn’t consciously lie about anything important (I was obliged to change a few names and details, to protect the innocent and, in some cases, the dead), I always had a sense of what I was doing as artifice. Of course, I’m not alone in this, but I wanted, in my usual obsessive way, to be sure that I didn’t mislead anyone.
5. On many occasions in A Lie About My Father, it looks like you are destined to fall, never to recover. What saved you, did your writing help?
Any talk about what saved me presumes that I have been saved. At the worst point, during that somewhat colourful fall, I felt myself being saved, by degrees, on a pretty regular basis, by anything from a piece of music at the right moment to the utterly amazing generosity of some of the friends I was lucky enough to have around me from time to time. If anything keeps me steady now – I still have some rather vertiginous days, and some even giddier nights – it’s my children. A fairly unoriginal answer, but the truth. If I had to sum it up, I’d say that, overall, I have been lucky in my loves.
6. How did you first come to be a writer?
Rather reluctantly, I think. I wrote some dreadful poems as a student, not for any good reason, I think, but mostly as a pose. After that, I composed a few piano pieces, (awful), tried my hand at painting, (execrable) then, unable to live on the wages I was earning as a gardener, went into the computer business. I really started writing there, to keep myself sane. I have been in some odd places, including a few madcap mental health facilities, but I’ve never found anywhere so unhealthy as the office where I worked for the last few years of my computing ‘career’. If I hadn’t had the mild eccentricity of poetry to keep me going then, I would have gone genuinely insane.
7. Which medium do you prefer to write in – poetry or prose?
I love both. They are difficult in different ways, but the rewards are the same in both cases.
8. Who or what are your biggest influences?
Too many to mention. I think it’s a sign of good health to be open to any influence, no matter how out of the way. In the past, when I’ve been asked this question, I’ve mostly cited the writers I like – yet it’s not always the work we most love that provides the shaping influence at any particular stage in this long discipline. It’s not even the case that poetry influences my poems, or prose my stories or novels – and sometimes the most ordinary 50s movie will be the catalyst for something that, in the end, has no relation whatsoever to it, in subject matter or mood. The one thing that does seem vital to me is that a writer’s art is founded upon his or her reading – especially of the dead. We could say that the world – the given world into which we imagine ourselves moment by moment – provides each writer with a distinct vision, or world view, but it is the community of writers, alive and dead, that teaches us the craft.
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Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Sebastian Faulks, Karin Slaughter and many more share their personal writing experience with you in our Q&As. Take a look!