The following interview is part of a series of author interviews on fiction and non-fiction craft, techniques, writing habits and processes. Enjoy.
WHO: NOVELIST AND POET ANNA VAUGHT
Q.What age did you start, seriously writing? What was the reason for doing so?
Well, I had a tough childhood so I always wrote and had a lot of imaginary friends (Which you see in Killing Hapless Ally). I only started really applying myself to extended fiction in July 2014 after gaining the courage to do so.
Q.Was being a novelist a long held ambition?
I had done a number of freelance pieces but always lacked the confidence to write a longer piece. I just sat down one day and thought, “Right. I am going to write a novel.” And I did. I am now on my fourth novel – one published, one out on subs. I’m also co-editing and editing two anthologies for Patrician Press, the publisher of Killing Hapless Ally, in 2019 and 2018 called ‘My Europe’ and ‘The Tempest.’
Q. What were you doing before becoming a novelist?
My background is in secondary English teaching. I’ve worked abroad and travelled a great deal and I run an English tuition which helps me continue writing. I also have three young sons.
Q. What did you study at university?
I have both a BA and MA in English. However I am a prodigious reader and believe that has been my biggest teacher in terms of novel writing.
Q. Who were your favourite writers growing up and why?
I discovered Dickens very young and it had a big impact – I loved his humour and characterisation. Roald Dahl was another favourite, of course
Q.What inspired Killing Hapless Ally?
KHA has a great deal of truth in it. Though parts are fictionalised, largely, I lived it. I appreciate that people without a screwy background may be running away, but that was it. I carried Ally both as a better version of myself (so the assumed self) but also as a burden that felt real and palpable for over thirty years. Since publication, strangers have written in to me because they’ve identified with the issues of mental health in Killing Hapless Ally. People have also come to my talks and opened up and told me it meant so much to them, reading about an experience similar to theirs. One reader wrote to me saying the book had changed her life. I’m now working on a novel called Passerines: I have a particular interest in mental health and mental illness because of the struggles I have had and I also love reading about history. I started reading about Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini (true story!) and also about the psychiatric hospital in Northampton where she was sent to for the rest of her life. Lucia Joyce also ended her days there. Part of Violet’s therapy was to care for the songbirds in the hospital garden – hence the title
Q.Do you come up with the book title first or the premise first?
KHA was always the title because killing Ally was the goal so I held it from the very beginning.
Q. Which comes more naturally to you – character or plot?
Q. What’s your take on writers block?
I’ve never had writer’s block. Don’t wait for inspiration. Let it strike while you are at work.
Q. What distracts you?
As a parent, my life is so full of distractions that I have absolutely no ideal writing conditions and very little protected time. I wrote part of Passerines hiding in the back seat of my car.
Q.Do you have a word count limit per day?
I have fiddled with Prolifiko (check them out on Twitter; they are very nice). You have to do whatever you can. I have written as much as 12,000 words in a day and as little as three lines.
Q.Did you have beta readers or friends help read the novel as you wrote it?
I had a few friends and my husband Ned as supportive early readers. I also joined a reading group where a couple of people gave feedback on my work. It can really help. I ask people’s opinions on Twitter a lot actually. I’ve found the writing community is very supportive there.
Q.Do you have writing mentors?
Well, not exactly, but the writers Avril Joy and Kate Armstrong have read bits of Passerines
Q.How did you submit to your agent/ publisher?
With Killing Hapless Ally, I submitted the book partially and then in full. I have started off with a wonderful small press (Patrician) who are exciting to work with.
Q. Do you read while writing?
I read all the time; two or three books a week.
Q.Anyone whose works inspires/ taught you how to write because of their sheer genius?
There are too many to name, but, Dickens; Joyce; Flaubert; Beckett; Flannery O Connor; Chekhov; Faulkner. The best book I read recently was ‘The Wake’ by Paul Kingsnorth.
Q.Did you read any ‘how to write a novel’ style books?
I liked Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (Harper Collins). I also did a Cornerstones report while drafting Killing Hapless Ally and met a really lovely editor, but I’m not sure I would pay this kind of money again. I am sceptical about a lot of courses as I guess many authors are. I think the key things are reading and graft
Q. What books are on your ‘to read’ list?
Joanna Barnard’s Hush Little Baby; books from my subscriptions at And Other Stories and as a supporter at Galley Beggar; historical research on the doctors and nurses who kept psychiatric patients safe in the Second World War; Thomas Wolfe’s The Web ad the Rock.
Q.Tell me about your writing processes.
Research (which is ongoing). Write a shit Frankendraft where I turn out 60,000 words. Cry. Rewrite. Edit again. Involve other readers. Edit again.
Q.What specifically did you find challenging?
Honestly? Confidence. I am very determined but I fundamentally lack self esteem.
Q.How do you keep secondary characters interesting? Do you give them a story of their own or do you write multiple character books?
Rule of thumb. Everyone needs a story. Characters who add nothing get chucked.
Q. What are your current projects?
It is a busy time. I am working on two further books and editing two anthologies as well as continuing to run my tuition business.
Q.Where can we find you, read your books and work?
You can follow me on twitter @bookwormvaught and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/annavaughtwrites/. My writer’s blog is www.annavaughtwrites.com. You can catch me on Goodreads or my Amazon page. My poetry is also published this year in The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea and The Patrician Press Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers. You can look at www.annavaughtwrites.com for news on this and for links to other writing, blogs and books. For teaching, you can find me at www.annavaughttuition.com.
You can buy copies of KILLING HAPLESS ALLY at www.patricianpress.com.