Hopefully things are now back to normal. I’m back today with a new interview with a good local friend of mine, literature expert and poet Michael Arnold. Give him a warm welcome please, and try not to kill him with excitement, he gets spooked easily ! Just a joke. But really.
1. First of all, tell me about yourself!
My name is Michael Arnold, or Michael A. Arnold. I’m a writer from Northumberland, and like to write essays, short stories, poetry, and have finished the first draft of my first novel. My essays are often on philosophical subjects, literary criticism, and travel writing, my short stories can be quite diverse – my poems are very influenced by Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, and John Keats. I’m very interested in nature, and philosophical issues around civilization, the different parts of society and how they interact, and war. I try my best to write about those subjects in a way that is not very pretentious – does not leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. I try to. They are the themes of my first novel, anyway.
2. How do you develop your plots and characters?
I was quite lucky with my first novel because it’s heavily inspired by another story, but often my plots for short stories come either fully formed in a moment of lucky inspiration or I start with an idea seed that I try to write out in full and it develops naturally from the characters and events as they want to define themselves as I free write them. It’s what Stephen King does, and it sounds risky – not every story seed works out or what to go beyond a few hundred words. Others become short stories thousands of words long. I quite like to do that actually, because it means when I start writing something I do not always know what I will have by the time I’m finished with the first draft.
Characters tend to come naturally, and I like it when they tell me who they are. The main character of my novel, Aaron Medwin, was in my head a very different person from the character I ended up writing in the first draft. That is fine with me if he wants to be his own person. And that’s the same with every character I create and write about I suppose.
But I also like to constantly redraft, rethink, and reconstruct plots, stories, and poems though – I am my own worst critic. Nothing in my opinion is really good enough, a lot of the time, and I only leave my projects alone when I am 100% happy with it. It can take me weeks, even months, and even occasionally a few years to finish a short story or a poem.
For example, I started one poem in 2013 that was initially called ‘On an Autumn Night’. Not a very good title for a poem, I do not think, it was about a night in my childhood when I went conker picking with my dad, I must have been about 7-8-9, somewhere around that age, and for some reason it has always stayed with me. The original version of the poem ended in the driveway of a mental institution and was about the passage of time and then rewritten in 2014 as a poem about writing poetry (I know, I know) and then finally in 2015 it was completely rewritten again in basically its current form and the last year has been spent thinking over lines and reconstructing them into the finished version it is in now. It just ‘feels’ right, and that is when I know I have captured the essence of what made me want to write it in the first place. It is now called ‘Going Conker Picking’.
3. Tell us about your current project.
This one is quite weird for me because I’ve set the first draft of my novel aside to let it stale enough for me to have plenty of distance from it, and go back and really start ripping it up and putting it back together in a form that someone in their right mind might reasonably want to bother reading.
I’m currently working on a collection of poems, all set in (I guess) Northumberland, my home county. A lot of the poems use the beauty of the Northumbrian landscape and the people who live here to talk about other things, and contemporary issues. I really want to make it good, and I’ve no idea at all how long it will actually take until I’m happy with it, but I have been working on many poems, and some of them I am really starting to like, so there is that.
As for my first novel – it is about a twenty-something called Aaron Medwin who lives with his housemate Paul. When the novel opens Aaron is on the phone with his sister Eliza who has phoned to tell him his father has died. It is a sudden death, and Aaron is understandably shocked to the core by the news. However. During his grieving (and something of an existential crisis) he learns that his father’s death was no accident, he was in fact murdered. I’ll not say any more than that, that is basically the first part of the novel.
4. Who would you say is the main character of your novels? And tell me a little bit about them!
I’ve only really wrote one, so Aaron Medwin would be the only person I could talk about. He is, personality speaking, a bit on the quiet side. He’s not friendless, but he finds it hard talking to people he does not know – but when he develops a friendship it is passionate and deeply felt. He is also a very practically-minded person and in control of himself, very unlike me, as I can be very clumsy. He is also very uninterested in the arts (again, unlike me) and would rather watch bad TV than read good books. He does read books, but he is the sort of reader who is only interested in the story and doesn’t care about anything else. He also doesn’t care for video games very much but will play them to kill a few hours, and doesn’t really care for sports unless he is involved directly in them. But, at the same time, he is not someone who cannot appreciate natural beauty and he likes going for runs to keep his stamina up. He likes coffee, comedy TV shows and keeps an eye on the news, also doesn’t drink alcohol often, but when he does he drinks very heavily – which means he has a very low level of alcohol tolerance. He is at the time the novel takes place working as a pizza delivery person, which basically covers his rent, his car, and food – but little much else for what might be called creature comforts beside the odd luxury. He is very much a 20-something in the time between 2010 and 2020.
5. What advice would you give new writers on how to delve into creative fiction?
Read. I could post that 100 times and still not feel it is enough. Read. Read. Read everything you can get your hands on. If you wouldn’t want to read it, that is all the more reason to read it because then you are at worst learning more about your own tastes and WHY you don’t like it if you can learn to think critically. Read poetry, plays, philosophy, romance novels, bad YA fiction, classic literature, trash, even newspapers and science journals. Why not? The more you know the more you can write about.
The second thing I’d want to suggest is that they should not be afraid to people watch. Try to get inside other people’s heads and learn what they like and dislike, what makes them tick, and how they think. I do think there is such a thing as emotional intelligence, and you become more emotionally intelligent through practice, even with a basic level of empathy.
The other thing I would suggest is write. Should be obvious, but a writer needs to write. There are no fairies who come along to write and fix your manuscript for you, you need to do it. You need to find the time. When I was teaching I would get up an hour earlier than I needed to to into work an hour early, just so I could write for that hour. Even if I could only write a page a day, give it a year and you basically have a book, and that is an hour also spent dancing around the staff room, picking my ears with a pencil, and singing songs to myself instead of writing.
Another thing I would really suggest to any new writer might be a little odd. Have something that makes you passionate, even if it is anger. George Orwell said that every time he wrote it was to expose some lie or injustice, and I think that’s a good principle to have. If you have something to say, I tend to think and find your work is better. Have a passion at least, and expose it in your writing, even if it is simply to keep yourself writing at all, but anger more than happiness is fantastic for getting out of bed and abusing a keyboard. Some people seem to think depressed people make the best writers, but depression stops you from wanting to do anything. I’m convinced those great depressed writers, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, and whoever else you could name had souls ablaze with anger. But at the same time, there is a lot of honesty in misery, so there is that. Basically have a purpose, and in the words of the film Dead Poet’s Society ‘Make your life extraordinary’.
6. What real-life inspirations did you draw from for the worldbuilding within your book?
Everything I write is based in the real world. Sorry I can’t be more interesting than that.
7) What inspires you to write?
It’ll sound like such a bland answer, but everything does. In particular, my favourite writers make me want to keep going. I recently bought a 50th year anniversary hardback edition of Seamus Heaney’s first collection Death of a Naturalist, and that and my copy of the Library of America collection of Robert Frost’s works, and the works of Homer keep inspiring me. They keep helping me through the hard parts of writing, and I find them endless sources of enjoyment.
I have to say, though, that the book that really told me why writing and fiction at all is so important, and gave birth to my whole pet theory on literature about it being entries into the great conversation human kind has been having with itself to try and define what it is to be human at all was born from my reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the most terrifying novel I have ever read, and trying to imagine a world without art and pleasure made me seriously question what art and pleasure are even for. In art we find our souls, in pleasure we find our reason to live and keep living. I believe in human nature, and the best thing to discover what that human nature is is through reading the works, fiction and otherwise, of other people. And as Nineteen Eighty-Four also helpfully reminds us, there is a LOT of darkness in the human condition, but there is also some good in there too, and that essential goodness, sometimes obscured by our essential evil, means the conversation will be going on for as long as there are intelligent minds to write.
Also, nature. Again, it sounds like such a writer cliché but it is so true. I love being out in the real countryside, and walking the hills and mountains, and thick woodland. I love country and pastoral poetry too – who would have guessed?
8. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Keeping going despite my own self doubts and patience with myself. A writer needs patience with them self, especially when the project isn’t going the way it should because it is perfect in the brain, but when it is down on paper and in the real world it is no longer the golden idea-nugget anymore. Having your idea go through the process of just coming into existence in this flawed and troubled world can be enough to destroy someone.
9. What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
I liked the party scene Aaron goes to in part 1 of my novel because it is the result of 3 years of drunken debauchery while I studied at undergraduate level at university. It was fun to write, and feel the vibrations of that free, Dionysian lifestyle once again.
Of my poetry collection, I really like all the poems I think are done. A parent might have a favourite child, but if questioned they’d never admit it.
10. Did you learn anything from writing this book and what was it?
That you should keep going, finishing it always worth the struggle. Always.
11. It’s sometimes difficult to get into understanding the characters we write. How do you go about it?
I let them talk. I’m pretty good at what Stephen King does, and what I like to call ‘free writing’ or writing without a plan. When I redraft I try to stay true to who the characters are, and keep as much of the original dialogue as possible.
12. What are your future project(s)?
I have a few ideas, some I think are even not-terrible. I don’t want to say too much at this stage, except that I would absolutely love to translate the poem Beowulf in full.
13. If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?
Teacher – which isn’t fair because that is what I am. Or a book seller. Or a dinosaur.
14. What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, here on Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
I can be contacted on Goodreads. I can be found here: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/12794867-michael-arnold
I don’t have a website, I don’t think I deserve one.
He clearly does deserve a website! I wish Michael Arnold all the luck with his writing projects; with life in the way it can be difficult to feel motivated to do what is needed. I’ll be back soon with more articles!