I’m delighted to post today an exclusive interview I recently conducted with William Horwood, author of the Duncton Wood series. Dedicated followers of this blog will be well aware of the high regard in which I hold William and his Duncton novels in particular, so it was a real pleasure to chat with him about a range of topics, including what got him into writing in the first place, inspirations for his work, the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of being a writer and, perhaps most interestingly, the potential forthcoming re-publication of the Duncton novels with Unbound, an award-winning crowdfunding publishing company. As you’ll see from the interview William was very open and incredibly generous with his time, giving answers that were sincere, full, interesting and, often, quite amusing! Read on for more…
What got you into writing?
I was bought up by my mother in a ‘House of Stories’. By that I mean raconteur, anecdote-type tales told by her, my siblings, my grandmother and the paying guests from Europe who stayed with us to learn English. Some stories were true, some not. Equally I read a lot and had the habit of ‘rehearsing’ the stories I read in my imagination before I went to bed. So I learnt to ‘think story’ quite young. It went no further than that until I was fourteen. We had an inspirational English teacher called David Warwick, who was one of those unusual teachers who was able to bring out the best in you without appearing to do so. One day we were reading the Francis Hodgson Burnett story The Secret Garden and in those days the reading was done round the class. My speed of reading was very fast so I got very bored of this and simply read ahead of the class itself. I was so absorbed in the story that I had absolutely no idea where we had got to. Mr Warwick asked me why I had lost the place and I said I was reading ahead. His response was amazingly positive. ‘So you have a view on the story, have you?’ he said encouragingly. I said I did. ‘Which is? ‘ he asked. I said, ‘well, it’s called The Secret Garden but I don’t think it’s really about a garden… it’s really about this world we’re all in and another we escape into…’ Probably most of my classmates did not know what I was talking about but he said, ‘that’s really interesting, go on…’ So I did. There was a moment when I felt that he and I were talking about something that I could do, really do. It was at that moment, to answer your question, that I realised that I really liked the idea of creating story. I decided then and there that that was what I wanted to do with my life.
What are your favourite novels and other inspirations for your work?
Arthur Mee’s ten-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia inspired me. His Wiki entry is worth looking at. The encyclopaedia included sections called Stories of the World. They were beautifully short versions of almost every classic tale we’ve ever heard and introduced me to both world literature and different traditions of story telling. Another inspiration was from my relatives – those tellers of tales I grew up with. Together they were a deeply dysfunctional extended (and arguably rather unpleasant) family, full of marginally insane characters afflicted by wartime experience. They were all scarily articulate so the inspiration for the voices in my head who became my fictional characters often begin with these real people whom I grew up with as a child.
What for you are the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of being a writer?
The most challenging aspect is that writing itself is in a sense a living death. That is, the time you spend writing, you’re not living – you’re writing. The challenge in that is to live as fully as you can, aware of the world around you and your evolving place within, so that the writing does not itself become the object of the exercise. To me writers are merely conduits for stories which may or may not come directly from themselves, so the challenge is to live a proper, fulfilling, compassionate life while at the same time doing an occupation which is fundamentally isolating and deeply dangerous in terms of separating you from your loved ones. I think that is a challenge many of us sometimes fail to meet, myself included.
In terms of the enjoyment… remember that writing itself is not a single activity, it’s a multiplicity of activities. All of them are differently enjoyable. It starts with research – the process of satisfying one’s curiosity, working as someone who is absorbing stuff that may become fictional or may not. Then there is the very different pleasure of constructing a coherent whole from complex and sometimes conflicting material. Then giving all that a beginning, a middle and an end. That is not easy to do, as you yourself know as a writer. The enjoyment then is solving the crossword of plot – making the progress of characters and their evolution through a novel interesting and surprising yet still credible. That is a deeply enjoyable process. I also enjoy the physical act of writing as an almost athletic craft. I physically enjoy it, rather like playing the piano, sitting at my computer bashing away at the keyboard to produce something. It’s almost like my fingers dance, particularly towards the end of a novel, when I’m in free flow and writing without thinking. I like that. The final challenge? That comes when I’ve finished one story and have to start another…
Your inspiration for the Duncton novels:
The moment of inspiration was very specific indeed. The woman to whom Duncton Wood is dedicated said one day that she felt like a mole. I said, well, moles are small and black and you’re blond and large and Californian. To which she replied, ‘well I do feel like that so write me a story about a mole’. That’s how Duncton Wood began, as a love story between myself, whom I called Bracken, and my lover, whom I called Rebecca. That was the starting point, but the wider inspiration goes infinitely deeper. I was in my early thirties when I wrote Duncton Wood and a lot of stuff came out – good and bad or difficult. I was resolving things in my life unconsciously and subconsciously through story. Maybe we all need to do that sometimes. Clarify things like our relationships with our parents and siblings or the pain and excitement of leaving home, of new love, of old fears. All sorts of stuff. It tends to come out in your early thirties because you have had time to live a bit by then and things happen making it hard to keep a lid on it. The particular history that informed Duncton Wood was our respective relationships or non-relationships with our fathers about whom we both had serious issues. . That’s why in my first Duncton novel Mandrake is very much the big and conflicting paternal figure, both black and white in many ways. What I discovered with that, incidentally, is that when you write a really convincing villain you tend to love the villain. You don’t have to dislike a dislikeable character, curiously enough. So part of the whole process of writing Duncton Wood was that it was a psychotherapeutic journey into understanding these issues of paternity, of sibling rivalry, sexuality and so forth. Contextually, it was also inspired by the prep school I went to, which was a place in East Kent that had a very large wood as part of it. We as kids both together and alone explored the wood – I was only eight or nine at the time. Only later did that whole experience of woodland find its expression in Duncton Wood, although Duncton Wood itself is not that particular wood.
The Unbound Project:
Some years ago, when I got the rights back to my novels, I decided to withdraw the Duncton titles from the market, which was quite an unusual thing to do. At the time (this was around the mid Nineties) I didn’t need the money, I was doing lots of other stuff and I didn’t know in what direction things were going – ebooks were just beginning to emerge and I didn’t know what might happen with all that. The Unbound project offers a way of putting Duncton Wood back on the market in a way that allows me to keep control of it. This is essentially about me as an author controlling my own copyright, which you couldn’t do even in those fairly recent days. You could never control what happened to your novel after you had sold it. I think that crowdfunding is a really good way of getting a project out and reaching the audience you most want to reach without losing control of what you’ve created.
[Editorial note: William is now working with Unbound, an award-winning crowdfunding publishing company. Together with William, they are crowdfunding a beautiful deluxe edition of the beloved Duncton Wood so that readers can be directly involved in the process. Supporters receive a special edition with their name printed in the back of the book and can chat to William directly on the project page. There are different rewards for supporters to enjoy, including limited edition postcards of artwork from the book, a writing masterclass run by William or even dinner with him, as well as many more. The Duncton Wood Deluxe campaign is currently doing really well and has reached 52%. As soon as it hits 100%, the editorial team will start working on publishing the deluxe editions for all supporters. For further details please visit William’s website.]
What are your views on Print vs Ebooks?
Until about this time last year I was on the committee of the Society of Authors and this issue came up quite a lot. It’s usually discussed in terms of one being better than the other. At a visceral level I prefer a real book – that’s because of the age I am and because I like the physical feel of pages and a whole book. Also I can find my way around a print book in a way I can’t with an ebook. I think the physical relationship between reader and book goes far beyond an intellectual reading of the words. It’s to do with where you are in the book, how you navigate it, whether you like the print – lots of stuff. I have tried to read fiction on my Kindle and I don’t like doing so, but non-fiction works for me in that format. For fiction I often prefer audio. I think the real question should not be what do you think of ebooks as opposed to print books but what do you think of alternative forms of storytelling other than the conventional print book. On that basis I actually think that for some stories audio is better than print. A good example would be Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It was virtually unreadable for me in print but as an audio it worked wonderfully. Equally, Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher novels are marvellous if you listen to them. I also read Lee Childs but it’s a different experience, so you’re not really comparing like with like. I think the big resistance to ebooks has been entirely due to the fact that at the time they began to come out 99% of the world had only ever read books, so they thought they were the only way. I think that in 20 years more people may go the other way, but more importantly I think that people will realize that there are loads of different ways of imbibing stories rather than simply through print. Oral storytelling is making a comeback, helped by audio and podcasts. I think that the internet is going to introduce other ways of storytelling than the ones we’re currently familiar with – and is probably doing so already in fact. A lot of computer games, for example, are really stories in a different medium. So are slideshows over-written with text, which the BBC now uses a lot.
What would be your top tips for aspiring writers?
I have loads, so here’s just a few, in no particular order:
– Knowing your market and knowing your genre is essential – know whom you’re writing for and what they expect in the genre you’re writing in. Research this thoroughly.
– If you have no one else to help you edit your book, read it into a tape recorder and listen back. Very few people do that but it’s an incredibly good way of discovering whether the slow and boring bits are, where yu need a signal, and so on. If you don’t do it for the entire book, at least do it for the first few chapters… Just do it.
– Have a place to write which is sacrosanct to you and be totally brutal with any partner or anyone you live with about this place. I think that a lot of people lose their creative energy because they’re weak when it comes to their partner. Take really seriously the need to protect your creativity – not in a pretentious way, just make sure it’s kept alive so that you’re able to produce what you need to produce. Guard your talent as you would your child.
– Don’t fall into the trap of asking other peoples’ opinions of your work, simply to affirm that you’re a good writer for an ego boost. Most writers who I know who are successful don’t ask that question at all, they know they can do it, they do it and they don’t need to be propped up by somebody else. Trust yourself.
What authors do you enjoy reading at the moment?
I read Lee Childs because I think he knows how to tell a good story. Looking at my bookshelf I’m reading a lot of political and economic stuff at the moment because of Brexit and because of the implications of Donald Trump’s election in the USA. I don’t read that much prose fiction any more. I’m reading a lot of poetry because I’m writing poetry. I’m working my way through English and American poetry. Much of my fictional ideas come from reading really good modern history – take someone like Niall Ferguson for example, who’s an economic historian. I think that he writes books that are much more interesting than most fiction!
What are your thoughts on the recent passing of Richard Adams?
The first thing I did on the day that I posted off the Dunction Wood manuscript in 1978 was to go straight to Blackwells in Oxford and buy Watership Down which had been published six years before. I’d deliberately not read it before writing Duncton Wood but I wanted to see how he had handled the same anthropomorphic issues as I did. I read it cover to cover in a café, just sat there and read it. I was hugely impressed and I understood – because I had just been through the same process – the technical things he was dealing with. Years later he called me and asked if I’d be willing to contribute to a volume of poetry that he was putting together called Occasional Poets, which I duly did. There was a reading for that in Birmingham and afterwards he gave me a lift back to Oxford in a chauffeur-driven car provided by Viking, his publishers. I was lucky enough to have two and a half hours with Richard in the back of this car. We talked anthropomorphic fiction and in all honesty it was the only time in my life I’ve talked to somebody about it at that level, with the kind of intensity and expertise that I myself had. He was an absolute master at that form and it was a great conversation. He was a strange person – I met him later and he affected not to remember who I was! He was acerbic and difficult, but then lots of writers are a bit difficult. He was very bright – I think he found a lot of people very boring and he didn’t mind saying so! I was naturally sorry to hear he died but he produced an absolute classic and also wrote a couple of other books that were very important.